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Mimicry and speciation in the parasitic finches of Africa



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Jamie, Gabriel Adam 


In this thesis, I study a radiation of brood-parasitic finch species, the indigobirds and whydahs (genus Vidua), that occur across Africa. Host colonisation is tightly linked to speciation in Vidua because of their remarkable capacity to imprint on their hosts, with mating traits and host preferences being influenced by the parasite's early environment. The challenge of explaining why the radiation has diversified to the extent it has therefore simplifies to understanding why only certain potential host species have been successfully colonised.

Following on from the introduction (Chapter 1), I begin by critically examining the logic with which mimicry in the natural world can be conceptually organized (Chapter 2). This creates a “mimicry landscape” in which to situate the mimetic adaptations of hosts exhibited by Vidua. The framework can be used to contrast and draw parallels between these and other mimetic adaptations present in the natural world. In Chapter 3, I review the literature on begging call mimicry and development across all avian brood parasite species. I outline the conditions under which we expect begging call mimicry to evolve, and when we expect it to develop primarily through genetic or environmental cues. This provides clear predictions for what we expect to occur in Vidua finches, which are tested in Chapters 4 and 5. In Chapter 4, I quantify the mimicry of host nestlings by Vidua in detail. I provide the first quantitative evidence that Vidua nestlings mimic the begging calls and show for the first time that Vidua are imperfect mimics of their hosts. In Chapter 5, I simulate the colonisation of a new host by transferring Vidua eggs into the nest of a new host species. I monitor Vidua survival in the foreign host environment and test several hypotheses about what explains differences in chick survival. I find that Vidua survive poorly in the new nest environment and that they do not show adaptive plasticity in begging calls or head movements. This poor survival occurs despite there being minimal differences in the diets each host species feeds their young. Finally, in Chapter 6, I carry out a comparative analysis on the evolution of estrildid mouth markings. Estrildid finches are the hosts of Vidua and so provide the landscape of potential ecological niches that Vidua may colonise and adapt to. I demonstrate that the host family shows strong phylogenetic signal in mouth marking traits, and find no evidence that ecological factors such as light environment or predation pressure has shaped estrildid mouth marking evolution.

The work in this thesis highlights how difficult successfully colonising new hosts is for Vidua finches. Vidua must mimic hosts in multiple traits (mouth markings, begging calls, head movements) to obtain sufficient amounts of food from host parents. Overall, habitat filters, the complex and diverse begging displays of estrildid nestlings, the discriminatory behaviour of estrildid parents against mismatching chicks and the lack of adaptive plasticity in begging displays by Vidua together help explain why the Vidua radiation consists of only 19 species rather than many more or fewer.




Spottiswoode, Claire Noelle


Mimicry, Speciation, Evolution, Ecology, Co-evolution, Host-parasite interactions


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
The Leverhulme Trust