Does coevolution promote species richness in parasitic cuckoos?

Oliver Krüger, Michael D. Sorenson, Nicholas B. Davies


Why some lineages have diversified into larger numbers of species than others is a fundamental but still relatively poorly understood aspect of the evolutionary process. Coevolution has been recognized as a potentially important engine of speciation, but has rarely been tested in a comparative framework. We use a comparative approach based on a complete phylogeny of all living cuckoos to test whether parasite–host coevolution is associated with patterns of cuckoo species richness. There are no clear differences between parental and parasitic cuckoos in the number of species per genus. However, a cladogenesis test shows that brood parasitism is associated with both significantly higher speciation and extinction rates. Furthermore, subspecies diversification rate estimates were over twice as high in parasitic cuckoos as in parental cuckoos. Among parasitic cuckoos, there is marked variation in the severity of the detrimental effects on host fitness; chicks of some cuckoo species are raised alongside the young of the host and others are more virulent, with the cuckoo chick ejecting or killing the eggs/young of the host. We show that cuckoos with a more virulent parasitic strategy have more recognized subspecies. In addition, cuckoo species with more recognized subspecies have more hosts. These results hold after controlling for confounding geographical effects such as range size and isolation in archipelagos. Although the power of our analyses is limited by the fact that brood parasitism evolved independently only three times in cuckoos, our results suggest that coevolutionary arms races with hosts have contributed to higher speciation and extinction rates in parasitic cuckoos.


    • Received July 1, 2009.
    • Accepted July 27, 2009.
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