Evidence supporting the recent origin and species status of the Timberline Sparrow

John Klicka, Robert M. Zink, Jon C. Barlow, W. Bruce Mcgillivray, Terry J. Doyle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Scopus citations


The Timberline Sparrow (Spizella taverneri), although originally described as a species, is currently classified as a subspecies of the more widespread Brewer's Sparrow (S. breweri). We investigated the taxonomic status and recent evolutionary history of these species by comparison of both morphological and molecular characters. Morphometric comparisons using 6 external and 18 skeletal measurements show that S. taverneri specimens from two widely separated populations (Yukon and southwestern Alberta, Canada) are indistinguishable with respect to size yet are significantly larger (by 3%) than representatives of several breweri populations. Analysis of 1,413 base pairs of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) for 10 breweri and 5 taverneri samples representing widely scattered breeding populations revealed a maximum divergence among any breweri-taverneri pair of 0.21% and an overall average of 0.13%. In contrast, the average (± SE) pairwise distance among the other Spizella species is 5.7 ± 0.5%. We discovered that breweri and taverneri could be distinguished on the basis of a single, fixed nucleotide difference. Of an additional 11 taverneri and 8 breweri surveyed for this diagnostic site, a single bird (morphologically a taverneri) from northwest British Columbia did not sort to 'type.' Overall, 18 of 18 breweri and 15 of 16 taverneri were diagnosable. We interpret these results to suggest that gene flow does not currently occur between these two forms and that each is on an independent, albeit recently derived, evolutionary course. The molecular data are consistent with theoretical expectations of a Late Pleistocene speciation event. We believe that for passerine birds, this is the first empirical validation of this widely accepted evolutionary model. The data presented corroborate plumage, vocal, and ecological evidence suggesting that these taxa are distinct. As such, we suggest that Spizella taverneri be recognized as a species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)577-588
Number of pages12
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 1999


  • Late pleistocene speciation
  • Morphometrics
  • Phylogeography
  • Species limits
  • Spizella breweri
  • Spizella taverneri
  • mtDNA


Dive into the research topics of 'Evidence supporting the recent origin and species status of the Timberline Sparrow'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this