The value of artificial stimuli in behavioral research: making the case for egg rejection studies in avian brood parasitism

Márk E. Hauber*, Lainga Tong, Miklós Bán, Rebecca Croston, Tomáš Grim, Geoffrey I N Waterhouse, Matthew D. Shawkey, Andrew B. Barron, Csaba Moskát

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

    40 Citations (Scopus)


    Experimentation is at the heart of classical and modern behavioral ecology research. The manipulation of natural cues allows us to establish causation between aspects of the environment, both internal and external to organisms, and their effects on animals' behaviors. In recognition systems research, including the quest to understand the coevolution of sensory cues and decision rules underlying the rejection of foreign eggs by hosts of avian brood parasites, artificial stimuli have been used extensively, but not without controversy. In response to repeated criticism about the value of artificial stimuli, we describe four potential benefits of using them in egg recognition research, two each at the proximate and ultimate levels of analysis: (1) the standardization of stimuli for developmental studies and (2) the disassociation of correlated traits of egg phenotypes used for sensory discrimination, as well as (3) the estimation of the strength of selection on parasitic egg mimicry and (4) the establishment of the evolved limits of sensory and cognitive plasticity. We also highlight constraints of the artificial stimulus approach and provide a specific test of whether responses to artificial cues can accurately predict responses to natural cues. Artificial stimuli have a general value in ethological research beyond research in brood parasitism and may be especially critical in field studies involving the manipulation of a single parameter, where other, confounding variables are difficult or impossible to control experimentally or statistically.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)521-528
    Number of pages8
    Issue number6
    Publication statusPublished - Jun 2015


    • artificial stimuli
    • brood parasitism
    • egg rejection
    • recognition systems
    • research methods
    • unnatural


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