Learned traits are thought to be subject to different evolutionary dynamics than other phenotypes, but their evolutionary tempo and mode has received little attention. Learned bird song has been thought to be subject to rapid and constant evolution. However, we know little about the evolutionary modes of learned song divergence over long timescales. Here, we provide evidence that aspects of the territorial songs of Eastern Afromontane sky island sunbirds evolve in a punctuated fashion, with periods of stasis of the order of hundreds of thousands of years or more, broken up by evolutionary pulses. Stasis in learned songs is inconsistent with learned traits being subject to constant or frequent change, as would be expected if selection does not constrain song phenotypes over evolutionary timescales. Learned song may instead follow a process resembling peak shifts on adaptive landscapes. While much research has focused on the potential for rapid evolution in bird song, our results suggest that selection can tightly constrain the evolution of learned songs over long timescales. More broadly, these results demonstrate that some aspects of highly variable, plastic traits can exhibit punctuated evolution, with stasis over long time periods.



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© 2021 The Authors. Published by the Royal Society under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/, which permits unrestricted use, provided the original author and source are credited.


Passeriformes, acoustic communication, adaptive landscape, peak shift, phenotypic plasticity, signal

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Proceedings B: Biological sciences