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Risk of egg diseases may rush incubation

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8:41pm, September 14, 2003
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Bird eggs can catch infections through their shells, and new tests in the wild suggest that this risk may be one of the pressures driving avian parents to start incubating eggs with a timing that puzzles biologists.

Birds lay an egg a day at most. Many bird species let early eggs in a brood sit unincubated for several days but begin incubation before the last eggs are laid. Since the eggs need the same number of incubation days, the eggs end up hatching at different times. This leads to siblings of different sizes, the bigger of which sometimes kill the smaller ones.

The debate over possible benefits for this staggered hatching has overlooked the risk of egg diseases, according to Mark I. Cook of the University of California, Berkeley. Studies of farm fowl have shown that a warm parent on top of an egg keeps moisture away and discourages microbial growth. So the longer a parent waits to start incubating, the greater may be the chance of eggs becoming infected.

To survey infection risks in the wild, the researchers set out 164 chicken eggs in two Puerto Rican forests for 1 to 7 days. Although conditions differed, in both places, bacterial and fungal invasions were significant after 5 days.

To test the impact of infections, the researchers again set out eggs in the forests but cleaned half of them with alcohol twice daily to reduce infections. After 5 days, the researchers collected the eggs and incubated them. Only in the cooler and more humid forest, three times as many cleaned eggs hatched as did uncleaned ones, the researchers report in an upcoming Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B.

The results suggest that beginning incubation of a brood before all the eggs are in the nest could boost survival among a brood.

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