A project undertaken at the School of Biological Sciences, University of Queensland, and supervised by William Feeney
The parasitic cuckoos are amongst nature’s greatest cheats. Instead of building a nest, incubating their eggs and raising their offspring, they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds and abandon the care of their young to the host. Upon hatching, most juvenile cuckoos dispose of their host nest mates, usurping its foster parents’ entire parental effort for itself. Unsurprisingly, the costs of parasitism by cuckoos selects defences in hosts, which selects counter-adaptations in cuckoos, further counter-defences in hosts and so on. These “evolutionary arms-races” have produced some of the most fascinating and charismatic examples of natural selection in nature, and have made cuckoos interesting models for studying evolutionary processes in the natural world.
Figure 1. The parasitic breeding- cycle of a fan-tailed cuckoo (from top to bottom): 1) the adult cuckoo lays an egg (right) that looks like a scrubwren egg (left), 2) the cuckoo chick (inside) ejects the scrubwren chick from the nest (outside), 3) the cuckoo chick is fed by the scrubwren until it outgrows its nest, 4) the scrubwrens continue to feed the fledged cuckoo chick until it becomes independent.
Approximately 20% of the worlds parasitic cuckoos breed in Australia, making it a global hotspot for cuckoo biodiversity. However, almost nothing is known about the natural history and evolutionary ecology of most of these species. Using a variety of techniques, this research will:
- Investigate the natural history and ecology of Australian cuckoos
- Describe aspects of the adaptation and counter-adaptation arms-races between Australian cuckoos and their hosts
- Explore how host communities have evolved to combat the threat presented by multiple co-occurring cuckoo species
The study of cuckoo-host interactions regularly produces unexpected insights into the ecological and evolutionary consequences of naturally occurring species interactions. Australia is renowned for its unique biodiversity and this research will contribute to this reputation through investigation of the secret lives of these intriguing birds.