Ecology and Evolution
Geographic variation in bird song has received much attention in evolutionary studies, yet few consider components within songs that may be subject to different constraints and follow different evolutionary trajectories. Here, we quantify patterns of geographic variation in the socially transmitted “whistle” song of Albert's lyrebirds (Menura alberti), an oscine passerine renowned for its remarkable vocal abilities. Albert's lyrebirds are confined to narrow stretches of suitable habitat in Australia, allowing us to map likely paths of cultural transmission using a species distribution model and least cost paths. We use quantitative methods to divide the songs into three components present in all study populations: the introductory elements, the song body, and the final element. We compare geographic separation between populations with variation in these components as well as the full song. All populations were distinguishable by song, and songs varied according to the geographic distance between populations. However, within songs, only the introductory elements and song body could be used to distinguish among populations. The song body and final element changed with distance, but the introductory elements varied independently of geographic separation. These differing geographic patterns of within-song variation are unexpected, given that the whistle song components are always produced in the same sequence and may be perceived as a temporally discrete unit. Knowledge of such spatial patterns of within-song variation enables further work to determine possible selective pressures and constraints acting on each song component and provides spatially explicit targets for preserving cultural diversity. As such, our study highlights the importance for science and conservation of investigating spatial patterns within seemingly discrete behavioral traits at multiple levels of organization.
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National Science Foundation