ABSTRACT

Evolved eggshell strength is greater in several lineages of obligate avian brood parasites (birds that lay their eggs in other species' nests) than in their hosts. Greater strength is typically indirectly implied by eggshell thickness comparisons between parasites and hosts. Nevertheless, there is strong evidence that the eggshell structural organization differentially influences its mechanical properties. Using instrumental puncture tests and SEM/EBSD and XRD techniques, we studied the most relevant eggshell mechanical, textural, ultrastructural and microstructural features between several host species and their parasitic cowbirds (Molothrus spp.). These parasitic species display different egg-destructive behaviors, reducing host reproductive fitness, including the more frequently host-egg puncturing M. rufoaxillaris and M. bonariensis, and the host egg-removing M. ater. The results, analyzed using a phylogenetic comparative approach, showed interspecific patterns in the mechanical and structural features. Overall, the eggshells of the two egg-puncturing parasites (but not of M. ater) were stronger, stiffer and required greater stress to produce a fracture than the respective hosts' eggs. These features were affected by eggshell microstructure and ultrastructure, related to the increase in the intercrystalline boundary network acting in cooperation with the increase in palisade layer thickness. Both structural features generate more options and greater lengths of intercrystalline paths, increasing the energy consumed in crack or fissure propagation. The reported patterns of all these diverse eggshell features support a new set of interpretations, confirming several hypotheses regarding the impact of the two reproductive strategies (parasitic versus parental) and parasitic egg destruction behaviors (more versus less frequently puncturing).

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