An Experimental Analysis of the Fine-Scale Effects of Nest Ectoparasites on Incubation Behavior Journal Article uri icon



  • ABSTRACTAvian incubation is a highly complex, adjustable behavior essential to embryo development and survival. When incubating, parents face a tradeoff between investing in incubation to maintain optimal temperatures for egg development or in self-maintenance behaviors to ensure their own survival and future reproduction. Because nest ectoparasites are costly and can reduce nestling quality and survival, infections could shift parental investment in current vs. future offspring. However, it is not well understood whether birds change investment in incubation in response to nest ectoparasitism, particularly in the context of other factors that are known to influence incubation behavior, such as ambient temperature, clutch size, and embryo development. We hypothesized that parents could respond to nest parasites by 1) investing more in incubation to promote the development of high-quality offspring to help offset the cost of parasites, 2) investing less in incubation or even abandoning their nest during incubation to save resources for future reproduction, or 3) being unresponsive to parasite infections, as incubation is more constrained by other factors. We tested these hypotheses by experimentally removing and adding mites in barn swallow nests at the start of incubation and deploying thermocouple eggs to measure egg temperatures at one-minute intervals until hatching. We found that while ambient temperature, clutch initiation date, embryo age, and clutch size were the main factors driving variation in egg conditions and parental incubation behavior, parasitized nests had higher mean egg temperatures, which could aid in nestling immune development. However, despite more optimal developmental temperatures, eggs in parasitized nests also had lower hatching success. Our results indicate that incubation is a dynamic behavior that is largely driven by the constraints of maintaining appropriate egg temperatures for development. Although quite costly upon hatching, ectoparasites appear to play a relatively minor role in driving variation in parental incubation investment.LAY SUMMARYIncubation is a complex behavior shaped by both internal and external factors.Ectoparasites often decrease quality and survival of nestlings and could influence investment in incubation because of tradeoffs in how parents spend energy.We manipulated parasites in barn swallow nests and used fake eggs with temperature sensors to collect data on egg temperatures and parental behavior throughout incubation.We found that other factors were the main drivers of variation in incubation behavior, but that eggs in parasite nests were warmer on average, which could help nestlings better cope with parasites upon hatching.Despite more optimal developmental temperatures, eggs in parasitized nests had lower hatching success.Although quite costly to nestlings, ectoparasites played a minor role in shaping parental incubation behavior.

publication date

  • July 11, 2022

has restriction

  • green

Date in CU Experts

  • July 19, 2022 12:30 PM

Full Author List

  • Hund AK; McCahill KA; Hernandez M; Turbek SP; Ardia DR; Terrien RC; Safran RJ

author count

  • 7

Other Profiles