Bird song, ecology and speciation

Hans Slabbekoorn, Thomas B. Smith


The study of bird song dialects was once considered the most promising approach for investigating the role of behaviour in reproductive divergence and speciation. However, after a series of studies yielding conflicting results, research in the field slowed significantly. Recent findings, on how ecological factors may lead to divergence in both song and morphology, necessitate a re–examination. We focus primarily on species with learned song, examine conflicting results in the literature and propose some potential new directions for future studies. We believe an integrative approach, including an examination of the role of ecology in divergent selection, is essential for gaining insight into the role of song in the evolution of assortative mating. Habitat–dependent selection on both song and fitness–related characteristics can lead to parallel divergence in these traits. Song may, therefore, provide females with acoustic cues to find males that are most fit for a particular habitat. In analysing the role of song learning in reproductive divergence, we focus on post–dispersal plasticity in a conceptual framework. We argue that song learning may initially constrain reproductive divergence, while in the later stages of population divergence it may promote speciation.