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Keywords:

  • vision;
  • brood parasitism;
  • calcium;
  • egg;
  • light environment;
  • maculation;
  • perception;
  • signalling

Recent work suggests that the evolution of egg coloration may have been constrained in three important ways that have not yet been critically synthesized in any review. First, on account of birds being able to see in the ultraviolet spectrum, the interaction between the properties of avian vision and the light environment of nests imply different perceptions of egg coloration from those experienced by humans. Second, a new hypothesis to explain blue–green egg coloration interprets it as a sexually selected signal to males of the laying female's genetic quality. Third, evidence from taxa as divergent as sparrowhawks and great tits indicates that protoporphyrin pigments responsible for maculation (spotting patterns) have a structural function in compensating for eggshell thinning, as caused by calcium stress, and, more recently, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane. We consider this to be the most convincing explanation for the primary function of spotting, although an important secondary function might arise through the fact that individual patterns of maculation may allow birds to identify their own eggs, effectively serving as signatures in the face of inter- or intra-specific brood parasitism. These constraints or hypotheses are not mutually exclusive, and should not be taken to imply that one, but not other, agents of selection might apply to any one species. However, the sexually-selected eggshell coloration hypothesis is least plausible for hole-nesting birds because of the poor light quality available, although such species have been the focus of research in this area, and only a single experimental study has shown a link between egg coloration and male provisioning. Furthermore, the observed relationships between female phenotypic quality and egg traits do not necessarily imply that they have signalling functions. © 2010 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2010, 100, 753–762.