Reconstructing the evolution of complex bird song in the oropendolas

J. Jordan Price, Scott M Lanyon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

117 Scopus citations


The elaborate songs of songbirds are frequent models for investigating the evolution of animal signals. However, few previous studies have attempted to reconstruct historical changes in song evolution using a phylogenetic comparative approach. In particular, no comparative studies of bird song have used a large number of vocal characters and a well-supported, independently derived phylogeny. We identified 32 features in the complex vocal displays of male oropendolas (genera Psarocolius, Gymnostinops, and Ocyalus) that are relatively invariant within taxa and mapped these characters onto a robust molecular phylogeny of the group. Our analysis revealed that many aspects of oropendola song are surprisingly evolutionarily conservative and thus are potentially useful characters for reconstructing historical patterns. Of the characters that varied among taxa, nearly two thirds (19 of 29) showed no evidence of evolutionary convergence or reversal when mapped onto the tree, which was reflected in a high overall consistency index (CI = 0.78) and retention index (RI = 0.88). Some reconstructed patterns provided evidence of selection on these signals. For example, rapid divergence of the songs of the Montezuma oropendola, Gymnostinops montezuma, from those of closely related taxa suggests the recent influence of strong sexual selection. In general, our results provide insights into the mode of vocal evolution in songbirds and suggest that complex vocalizations can provide information about phylogeny. Based on this evidence, we use song characters to estimate the phylogenetic affinities of three oropendola taxa for which molecular data are not yet available.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1514-1529
Number of pages16
Issue number7
StatePublished - 2002


  • Behavioral evolution
  • Bird song
  • Courtship display
  • Icteridae
  • Phylogenetic comparative methods
  • Phylogeny
  • Sexual selection


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