Male response to historical and geographical variation in bird song

Elizabeth P. Derryberry


In many species, individuals discriminate among sexual signals of conspecific populations in the contexts of mate choice and male–male competition. Differences in signals among populations (geographical variation) are in part the result of signal evolution within populations (temporal variation). Understanding the relative effect of temporal and geographical signal variation on signal salience may therefore provide insight into the evolution of behavioural discrimination. However, no study, to my knowledge, has compared behavioural response to historical signals with response to current signal variation among populations. Here, I measured the response of male white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) to historical songs compared with current songs from their local population, a nearby non-local population and a distant population. Males responded most strongly to current local songs, less, but equally, to historical local and current non-local songs, and least to songs of the distant population. Moreover, response to both temporal and geographical variation in song was proportional to how much songs differed acoustically from current local songs. Signal evolution on an ecological time scale appears to have an effect on signal salience comparable to differences found between current neighbouring populations, supporting the idea that behavioural discrimination among learned signals of conspecific populations can evolve relatively rapidly.


  • Present address: 119 Foster Hall, Museum of Natural Science, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA 70803, USA.

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