Male European stonechat, Düffel, Germany

Behavioural response of a migratory songbird to geographic variation in song and morphology. 

Kim G. Mortega • Heiner Flinks • Barbara Helm. 2014. Front Zool 11:185. download






Sexually selected traits contribute substantially to evolutionary diversification, for example by promoting assortative mating. The contributing traits and their relevance for reproductive isolation differ between species. In birds, sexually selected acoustic and visual signals often undergo geographic divergence. Clines in these phenotypes may be used by both sexes in the context of sexual selection and territoriality. The ways conspecifics respond to geographic variation in phenotypes can give insights to possible behavioural barriers, but these may depend on migratory behaviour. We studied a migratory songbird, the Stonechat, and tested its responsiveness to geographic variation in male song and morphology. The traits are acquired differently, with possible implications for population divergence. Song can evolve quickly through cultural transmission, and thus may contribute more to the establishment of geographic variation than inherited morphological traits. We first quantified the diversity of song traits from different populations. We then tested the responses of free-living Stonechats of both sexes to male phenotype with playbacks and decoys, representing local and foreign stimuli derived from a range of distances from the local population.

Both sexes discriminated consistently between stimuli from different populations, responding more strongly to acoustic and morphological traits of local than foreign stimuli. Time to approach increased, and time spent close to the stimuli and number of tail flips decreased consistently with geographic distance of the stimulus from the local population. Discriminatory response behaviour was more consistent for acoustic than for morphological traits. Song traits of the local population differed significantly from those of other populations.

Evaluating an individual’s perception of geographic variation in sexually selected traits is a crucial first step for understanding reproductive isolation mechanisms. We have demonstrated that in both sexes of Stonechats the responsiveness to acoustic and visual signals decreased with increasing geographic distance of stimulus origin. These findings confirm consistent, fine discrimination for both learned song and inherited morphological traits in these migratory birds. Maintenance or further divergence in phenotypic traits could lead to assortative mating, reproductive isolation, and potentially speciation.


photo credit: Beate Apfelbeck