A latitudinal gradient in rates of evolution of avian syllable diversity and song length

Jason T. Weir, David Wheatcroft


We ask whether rates of evolution in traits important for reproductive isolation vary across a latitudinal gradient, by quantifying evolutionary rates of two traits important for pre-mating isolation—avian syllable diversity and song length. We analyse over 2500 songs from 116 pairs of closely related New World passerine bird taxa to show that evolutionary rates for the two main groups of passerines—oscines and suboscines—doubled with latitude in both groups for song length. For syllable diversity, oscines (who transmit song culturally) evolved more than 20 times faster at high latitudes than in low latitudes, whereas suboscines (whose songs are innate in most species and who possess very simple song with few syllable types) show no clear latitudinal gradient in rate. Evolutionary rates in oscines and suboscines were similar at tropical latitudes for syllable complexity as well as for song length. These results suggest that evolutionary rates in traits important to reproductive isolation and speciation are influenced by latitude and have been fastest, not in the tropics where species diversity is highest, but towards the poles.

  • Received September 22, 2010.
  • Accepted October 22, 2010.
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