Duncan Jackson, Jamie E. Thompson, Nicola Hemmings, and Timothy R. Birkhead

Birds are arguably the most evolutionarily successful extant vertebrate taxon, in part because of their ability to reproduce in virtually all terrestrial habitats. Common guillemots, Uria aalge, incubate their single egg in an unusual and harsh environment; on exposed cliff ledges, without a nest, and in close proximity to conspecifics. As a consequence, the surface of guillemot eggshells is frequently contaminated with faeces, dirt, water and other detritus, which may impede gas exchange or facilitate microbial infection of the developing embryo. Despite this, guillemot chicks survive incubation and hatch from eggs heavily covered with debris. To establish how guillemot eggs cope with external debris, we tested three hypotheses: (1) contamination by debris does not reduce gas exchange efficacy of the eggshell to a degree that may impede normal embryo development; (2) the guillemot eggshell surface is self-cleaning; (3) shell accessory material (SAM) prevents debris from blocking pores, allowing relatively unrestricted gas diffusion across the eggshell. We showed that natural debris reduces the conductance of gases across the guillemot eggshell by blocking gas exchange pores. Despite this problem, we found no evidence that guillemot eggshells are self-cleaning, but instead showed that the presence of SAM on the eggshell surface largely prevents pore blockages from occurring. Our results demonstrate that SAM is a crucial feature of the eggshell surface in a species with eggs that are frequently in contact with debris, acting to minimise pore blockages and thus ensure a sufficient rate of gas diffusion for embryo development.

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