Many Australian mistletoe species are cryptic, closely resembling their host foliage and overall appearance. Seed-dispersing birds have been proposed as a selective agent for host resemblance, with cryptic mistletoes only located by thoroughly searching through canopies regardless of infection status, boosting mistletoe populations by increasing the frequency of seeds dispersed to uninfected hosts; however, this idea is as yet untested. We measured bird visitation to fruiting mistletoes (n = 20) over two consecutive days, with manual defoliation of the mistletoe occurring before observation began on the second day to determine the effect of the visual appearance of the mistletoe on potential seed-dispersing birds, expecting defoliation to reduce the number of visits. Visits to the mistletoes were compared between days of observation and dietary guild (mistletoe specialist/nonspecialist). Intact mistletoes were visited more than the defoliated mistletoes, and the dietary guilds differed in their visitation patterns. This work demonstrates that the visual acuity of seed-dispersers can distinguish subtle differences in mistletoe phenotypes within infected hosts, consistent with the hypothesis that those mistletoes that more closely resemble their hosts are more difficult to perceive from afar and therefore more likely to have their seeds dispersed to uninfected hosts.
Cook, M. E., Leigh, A., & Watson, D. M. (2020). Hiding in plain sight: Experimental evidence for birds as selective agents for host mimicry in mistletoes. Botany, 98(9), 525-531. https://doi.org/10.1139/cjb-2019-0209