Parents, predators, parasites, and the evolution of eggshell colour in open nesting birds

Document Type


Publication Date


Publication Title

Evolutionary Ecology





First Page


Last Page





The colourful surface of birds’ eggshells varies dramatically between species, but the selective pressures driving this variation remain poorly understood. We used a large comparative dataset to test several hypotheses proposed to explain the evolution of eggshell colouration. We tested the hypothesis that predation pressure might select for cryptic eggshells by examining the relationship between predation rate and egg colouration. We found that predation rates were positively related to eggshell brightness. The blackmail hypothesis suggests that females lay colourful eggshells to coerce males into providing additional care during incubation to keep colourful eggs covered. According to this hypothesis, conspicuous eggs should be found in situations with high risk of visual detection from predators or brood parasites. In support of this hypothesis, proportional blue-green chroma was positively related to parasitism risk, and eggs with higher proportional blue-green chroma or higher ultraviolet chroma received higher combined parental nest attendance during the incubation period. The sexual signalling hypothesis states that blue-green colour indicates female quality; however, we did not find that blue-green eggshell colour was greater in species where males participate in any form of parental care, and relative male provisioning was unrelated to blue-green eggshell chroma. We found some support for the hypothesis that brood parasitism may select for high inter-clutch variation in eggshell colour to facilitate egg recognition. In our dataset, parasitism risk was negatively related to inter-clutch repeatability of blue-green chroma. Our study highlights the diversity of selection pressures acting on the evolution of eggshell colour in birds and provides suggestions for novel areas of future key research direction.