The evolution of wood warbler flight calls: Species with similar migrations produce acoustically similar calls

Authors: Zach G. Gayk, Richard K. Simpson, and Daniel J. Mennill

Year: 2021

Publication: Evolution

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Keywords: Acoustic convergence, flight calls, migration, wood warblers

Abstract: Diverse animal species engage in long-distance migrations. Many migrants travel in groups, and communication within these groups may be important to survival and successful migration. We examined migration and communication in 36 species of wood warblers (Parulidae), songbirds that breed in North America and migrate in mixed-species flocks to their wintering grounds. During migration, wood warblers produce short vocalizations called “flight calls.” The function of flight calls and the patterns of acoustic similarity between species are poorly understood.We investigated whether acoustic similarity of flight calls of different species of warbler reflects the similarity in their migratory journeys or their phylogenetic relatedness. We found that phylogeny, similarity in breeding latitude, and overlap in the timing of migration predict acoustic flight call similarity across warbler species. Further, we found that phylogeny, similarity in migration distance, and overlap in wintering range predict acoustic flight call similarity in a subset of 12 species with highly similar calls, although this analysis has a small sample size. We conclude that migratory similarity may be an important force driving the evolution of acoustically similar calls in wood warblers, in addition to phylogenetic relatedness. Acoustic convergence in these species may facilitate communication between individuals with similar migrations.

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