Raising a family is challenging. Conflicts of interest arise between parents, who seek to optimize family size each breeding season, and offspring, who seek to maximize the amount of care they receive (to a point). How parents manage their investment in the face of these conflicts has been a focus in life history theory.
American coots (Fulica americana) have a decidedly active — and aggressive — strategy of parental intervention. My research shows that coots use a mixed strategy for controlling brood size: they use both brood reduction and parental control, but at different points in the parental care stage. After an initial period of high mortality for late-hatching chicks (brood reduction), Parental behaviors such as parental aggression, brood division and favoritism act as mechanisms for parental control that allow adults to optimally invest in their offspring (Shizuka & Lyon 2013). In the process, parents create a “favoritism hierarchy”, that is distinct from the competitive hierarchy created by hatching asynchrony. Changes in parental care strategies across time might be common, but it requires intensive observations throughout the parental care period (both in the nest & outside the nest), which is tractable in subprecocial birds like coots, but may be more difficult in altricial birds.
Learning, recognition and coevolution between brood parasites and hosts
This work has led me to further ponder the ubiquitous role of learning mechanisms in ecological and evolutionary processes. Equally important is the ecology of information in which organisms evolve, which ultimately influences the evolution of learning. I seek to combine field experiments and theory to further understand learning processes in the contexts of host-parasite coevolution, speciation and family dynamics.
This work was funded in part by an NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (NSF: please bring this program back!!)
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