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Keywords:

  • Acrocephalus scirpaceus;
  • coevolution;
  • Cuculus canorus;
  • geographical mosaic;
  • local adaptation;
  • mimicry;
  • specialization

Abstract

The obligate avian brood parasitic common cuckoo Cuculus canorus comprises different strains of females that specialize on particular host species by laying eggs of a constant type that often mimics those of the host. Whether cuckoos are locally adapted for mimicking populations of the hosts on which they are specialized has never been investigated. In this study, we first explored the possibility of local adaptation in cuckoo egg mimicry over a geographical mosaic of selection exerted by one of its main European hosts, the reed warbler Acrocephalus scirpaceus. Secondly, we investigated whether cuckoos inhabiting reed warbler populations with a broad number of alternative suitable hosts at hand were less locally adapted. Cuckoo eggs showed different degrees of mimicry to different reed warbler populations. However, cuckoo eggs did not match the egg phenotypes of their local host population better than eggs of other host populations, indicating that cuckoos were not locally adapted for mimicry on reed warblers. Interestingly, cuckoos exploiting reed warblers in populations with a relatively larger number of co-occurring cuckoo gentes showed lower than average levels of local adaptation in egg volume. Our results suggest that cuckoo local adaptation might be prevented when different cuckoo populations exploit more or fewer different host species, with gene flow or frequent host switches breaking down local adaptation where many host races co-occur.