Royal Society Publishing

Elaborate visual and acoustic signals evolve independently in a large, phenotypically diverse radiation of songbirds

Nicholas A. Mason , Allison J. Shultz , Kevin J. Burns


The concept of a macroevolutionary trade-off among sexual signals has a storied history in evolutionary biology. Theory predicts that if multiple sexual signals are costly for males to produce or maintain and females prefer a single, sexually selected trait, then an inverse correlation between sexual signal elaborations is expected among species. However, empirical evidence for what has been termed the ‘transfer hypothesis’ is mixed, which may reflect different selective pressures among lineages, evolutionary covariates or methodological differences among studies. Here, we examine interspecific correlations between song and plumage elaboration in a phenotypically diverse, widespread radiation of songbirds, the tanagers. The tanagers (Thraupidae) are the largest family of songbirds, representing nearly 10% of all songbirds. We assess variation in song and plumage elaboration across 301 species, representing the largest scale comparative study of multimodal sexual signalling to date. We consider whether evolutionary covariates, including habitat, structural and carotenoid-based coloration, and subfamily groupings influence the relationship between song and plumage elaboration. We find that song and plumage elaboration are uncorrelated when considering all tanagers, although the relationship between song and plumage complexity varies among subfamilies. Taken together, we find that elaborate visual and vocal sexual signals evolve independently among tanagers.

  • Received April 22, 2014.
  • Accepted May 20, 2014.
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