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Concept: Bird nest


Through theoretical analysis, we show how a superorganism may react to stimulus variations according to psychophysical laws observed in humans and other animals. We investigate an empirically-motivated honeybee house-hunting model, which describes a value-sensitive decision process over potential nest-sites, at the level of the colony. In this study, we show how colony decision time increases with the number of available nests, in agreement with the Hick-Hyman law of psychophysics, and decreases with mean nest quality, in agreement with Piéron’s law. We also show that colony error rate depends on mean nest quality, and difference in quality, in agreement with Weber’s law. Psychophysical laws, particularly Weber’s law, have been found in diverse species, including unicellular organisms. Our theoretical results predict that superorganisms may also exhibit such behaviour, suggesting that these laws arise from fundamental mechanisms of information processing and decision-making. Finally, we propose a combined psychophysical law which unifies Hick-Hyman’s law and Piéron’s law, traditionally studied independently; this unified law makes predictions that can be empirically tested.

Concepts: Scientific method, Decision making, Organism, Species, Futurology, Cognition, Decision theory, Bird nest


Knowledge about the types of nests built by dinosaurs can provide insight into the evolution of nesting and reproductive behaviors among archosaurs. However, the low preservation potential of their nesting materials and nesting structures means that most information can only be gleaned indirectly through comparison with extant archosaurs. Two general nest types are recognized among living archosaurs: 1) covered nests, in which eggs are incubated while fully covered by nesting material (as in crocodylians and megapodes), and 2) open nests, in which eggs are exposed in the nest and brooded (as in most birds). Previously, dinosaur nest types had been inferred by estimating the water vapor conductance (i.e., diffusive capacity) of their eggs, based on the premise that high conductance corresponds to covered nests and low conductance to open nests. However, a lack of statistical rigor and inconsistencies in this method render its application problematic and its validity questionable. As an alternative we propose a statistically rigorous approach to infer nest type based on large datasets of eggshell porosity and egg mass compiled for over 120 extant archosaur species and 29 archosaur extinct taxa/ootaxa. The presence of a strong correlation between eggshell porosity and nest type among extant archosaurs indicates that eggshell porosity can be used as a proxy for nest type, and thus discriminant analyses can help predict nest type in extinct taxa. Our results suggest that: 1) covered nests are likely the primitive condition for dinosaurs (and probably archosaurs), and 2) open nests first evolved among non-avian theropods more derived than Lourinhanosaurus and were likely widespread in non-avian maniraptorans, well before the appearance of birds. Although taphonomic evidence suggests that basal open nesters (i.e., oviraptorosaurs and troodontids) were potentially the first dinosaurs to brood their clutches, they still partially buried their eggs in sediment. Open nests with fully exposed eggs only became widespread among Euornithes. A potential co-evolution of open nests and brooding behavior among maniraptorans may have freed theropods from the ground-based restrictions inherent to covered nests and allowed the exploitation of alternate nesting locations. These changes in nesting styles and behaviors thus may have played a role in the evolutionary success of maniraptorans (including birds).

Concepts: Evolution, Bird, Extinction, Nest, Dinosaur, Bird nest, Archosaur, Rauisuchia


Dinosaurs thrived and reproduced in various regions worldwide, including the Arctic. In order to understand their nesting in diverse or extreme environments, the relationships between nests, nesting environments, and incubation methods in extant archosaurs were investigated. Statistical analyses reveal that species of extant covered nesters (i.e., crocodylians and megapodes) preferentially select specific sediments/substrates as a function of their nesting style and incubation heat sources. Relationships between dinosaur eggs and the sediments in which they occur reveal that hadrosaurs and some sauropods (i.e., megaloolithid eggs) built organic-rich mound nests that relied on microbial decay for incubation, whereas other sauropods (i.e., faveoloolithid eggs) built sandy in-filled hole nests that relied on solar or potentially geothermal heat for incubation. Paleogeographic distribution of mound nests and sandy in-filled hole nests in dinosaurs reveals these nest types produced sufficient incubation heat to be successful up to mid latitudes (≤47°), 10° higher than covered nesters today. However, only mound nesting and likely brooding could have produced sufficient incubation heat for nesting above the polar circle (>66°). As a result, differences in nesting styles may have placed restrictions on the reproduction of dinosaurs and their dispersal at high latitudes.

Concepts: Bird, Arctic Ocean, Nest, Dinosaur, Saurischia, Bird nest, Archosaur, Rauisuchia


Large numbers of metallic starlings (Aplonis metallica) migrate annually from New Guinea to the rainforests of tropical Australia, where they nest communally in single emergent trees (up to 1,000 birds). These aggregations create dense and species-rich faunal “hot-spots”, attracting a diverse assemblage of local consumers that utilise this seasonal resource. The starlings nested primarily in poison-dart trees (Antiaris toxicaria) near the rainforest-woodland boundary. Surveys underneath these colonies revealed that bird-derived nutrients massively increased densities of soil invertebrates and mammals (primarily wild pigs) beneath trees, year-round. Flying invertebrates, nocturnal birds, reptiles, and amphibians congregated beneath the trees when starlings were nesting (the wet-season). Diurnal birds (primarily cockatoos and bush turkeys) aggregated beneath the trees during the dry-season to utilise residual nutrients when the starlings were not nesting. The abundance of several taxa was considerably higher (to > 1000-fold) under colony trees than under nearby trees. The system strikingly resembles utilisation of bird nesting colonies by predators in other parts of the world but this spectacular system has never been described, emphasizing the continuing need for detailed natural-history studies in tropical Australia.

Concepts: Ecology, Bird, Reptile, Papua New Guinea, Rainforest, Bird migration, Bird nest, Aplonis


Species respond to climate change in two dominant ways: range shifts in latitude or elevation and phenological shifts of life-history events. Range shifts are widely viewed as the principal mechanism for thermal niche tracking, and phenological shifts in birds and other consumers are widely understood as the principal mechanism for tracking temporal peaks in biotic resources. However, phenological and range shifts each present simultaneous opportunities for temperature and resource tracking, although the possible role for phenological shifts in thermal niche tracking has been widely overlooked. Using a canonical dataset of Californian bird surveys and a detectability-based approach for quantifying phenological signal, we show that Californian bird communities advanced their breeding phenology by 5-12 d over the last century. This phenological shift might track shifting resource peaks, but it also reduces average temperatures during nesting by over 1 °C, approximately the same magnitude that average temperatures have warmed over the same period. We further show that early-summer temperature anomalies are correlated with nest success in a continental-scale database of bird nests, suggesting avian thermal niches might be broadly limited by temperatures during nesting. These findings outline an adaptation surface where geographic range and breeding phenology respond jointly to constraints imposed by temperature and resource phenology. By stabilizing temperatures during nesting, phenological shifts might mitigate the need for range shifts. Global change ecology will benefit from further exploring phenological adjustment as a potential mechanism for thermal niche tracking and vice versa.

Concepts: Biology, Ecology, Temperature, Bird, Heat, Vegetation, Black body, Bird nest


Birds are known to respond to nest-dwelling parasites by altering behaviours. Some bird species, for example, bring fresh plants to the nest, which contain volatile compounds that repel parasites. There is evidence that some birds living in cities incorporate cigarette butts into their nests, but the effect (if any) of this behaviour remains unclear. Butts from smoked cigarettes retain substantial amounts of nicotine and other compounds that may also act as arthropod repellents. We provide the first evidence that smoked cigarette butts may function as a parasite repellent in urban bird nests. The amount of cellulose acetate from butts in nests of two widely distributed urban birds was negatively associated with the number of nest-dwelling parasites. Moreover, when parasites were attracted to heat traps containing smoked or non-smoked cigarette butts, fewer parasites reached the former, presumably due to the presence of nicotine. Because urbanization changes the abundance and type of resources upon which birds depend, including nesting materials and plants involved in self-medication, our results are consistent with the view that urbanization imposes new challenges on birds that are dealt with using adaptations evolved elsewhere.

Concepts: Fungus, Symbiosis, Cigarette, Nicotine, Bird, Parasitism, Commensalism, Bird nest


Aposematic (warning) signals of prey help predators to recognize the defended distasteful or poisonous prey that should be avoided. The evolution of aposematism in the context of predation has been in the center of modern ecology for a long time. But, the possible roles of aposematic signals in other ecological contexts have been largely ignored. Here we address the role of aposematic signals in competition between prey and predators. Bumblebees use visual and auditory aposematic signals to warn predators about their defenses. For 2 years, we observed competition for nestboxes between chemically defended insects, Bombus ardens (and possibly also Bombus ignitus), and cavity nesting birds (Parus minor and Poecile varius). Bumblebees settled in 16 and 9 % of nestboxes (in 2010 and 2011 breeding seasons, respectively) that contained bird nests at the advanced stage of nest building or at the stage of egg laying. Presence of bumblebees prevented the birds from continuing the breeding activities in the nestboxes, while insects took over the birds' nests (a form of kleptoparasitism). Playback experiments showed that the warning buzz by bumblebees contributed to the success in ousting the birds from their nests. This demonstrates that aposematic signals may be beneficial also in the context of resource competition.

Concepts: Evolution, Insect, Predation, Ecology, Bird, Aposematism, Biological interaction, Bird nest


Animal camouflage is a longstanding example of adaptation. Much research has tested how camouflage prevents detection and recognition, largely focusing on changes to an animal’s own appearance over evolution. However, animals could also substantially alter their camouflage by behaviourally choosing appropriate substrates. Recent studies suggest that individuals from several animal taxa could select backgrounds or positions to improve concealment. Here, we test whether individual wild animals choose backgrounds in complex environments, and whether this improves camouflage against predator vision. We studied nest site selection by nine species of ground-nesting birds (nightjars, plovers and coursers) in Zambia, and used image analysis and vision modeling to quantify egg and plumage camouflage to predator vision. Individual birds chose backgrounds that enhanced their camouflage, being better matched to their chosen backgrounds than to other potential backgrounds with respect to multiple aspects of camouflage. This occurred at all three spatial scales tested (a few cm and five meters from the nest, and compared to other sites chosen by conspecifics), and was the case for the eggs of all bird groups studied, and for adult nightjar plumage. Thus, individual wild animals improve their camouflage through active background choice, with choices highly refined across multiple spatial scales.

Concepts: Better, Improve, Animal, Bird, Choice, Camouflage, Bird nest, Nightjar


Cooperative breeding is a widespread and intense form of cooperation, in which individuals help raise offspring that are not their own. This behaviour is particularly well studied in birds, using both long-term and comparative studies that have provided insights into the evolution of reproductive altruism. In most cooperatively breeding species, helpers are offspring that remain with their parents beyond independency and help in the raising of younger siblings. However, many cooperatively breeding species are poorly studied, and in 152 species, this behaviour only has been observed infrequently (i.e., occasional cooperative breeding). Here we argue that the parental care mode of these 152 species needs to be treated with caution, as factors associated with occasional cooperative breeding may differ from those associated with “regular” cooperative breeding. In most cooperatively breeding species, helpers provide alloparental care at the nests of their parents or close relatives; however, only in one occasionally cooperatively breeding species do offspring remain into the next breeding season with their parents. Accordingly, different factors are likely to be associated with regular and occasional cooperative breeding. The latter behaviour resembles interspecific feeding (i.e., individuals feed offspring of another species), which occurs when birds lose their brood and begin feeding at a nearby nest, or when birds mistakenly feed at another nest. Thus, we advise researchers to exclude occasional cooperative breeders in comparative analyses until their status is clarified, or to categorize them separately or according to the typically observed parental care mode. This approach will increase the robustness of comparative analyses and thereby improve our understanding of factors that drive the evolution of cooperative breeding.

Concepts: Reproduction, Evolution, Parent, Bird, The Evolution of Cooperation, Sibling, Offspring, Bird nest


Previous studies have suggested that birds and mammals select materials needed for nest building based on their thermal or structural properties, although the amounts or properties of the materials used have been recorded for only a very small number of species. Some of the behaviours underlying the construction of nests can be indirectly determined by careful deconstruction of the structure and measurement of the biomechanical properties of the materials used. Here we examined this idea in an investigation of Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) nests as a model for open-nesting songbird species that construct a “twig” nest, and tested the hypothesis that materials in different parts of nests serve different functions. The quantities of materials present in the nest base, sides and cup were recorded before structural analysis. Structural analysis showed that the base of the outer nests were composed of significantly thicker, stronger and more rigid materials compared to the side walls, which in turn were significantly thicker, stronger and more rigid than materials used in the cup. These results suggest that the placement of particular materials in nests may not be random, but further work is required to determine if the final structure of a nest accurately reflects the construction process.

Concepts: Structure, Bird, Songbird, Nest, Construction, Bird nest, Deconstruction, Pyrrhula