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Article

Female song is widespread and ancestral in songbirds

  • Nature Communications 5, Article number: 3379 (2014)
  • doi:10.1038/ncomms4379
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Abstract

Bird song has historically been considered an almost exclusively male trait, an observation fundamental to the formulation of Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. Like other male ornaments, song is used by male songbirds to attract females and compete with rivals. Thus, bird song has become a textbook example of the power of sexual selection to lead to extreme neurological and behavioural sex differences. Here we present an extensive survey and ancestral state reconstruction of female song across songbirds showing that female song is present in 71% of surveyed species including 32 families, and that females sang in the common ancestor of modern songbirds. Our results reverse classical assumptions about the evolution of song and sex differences in birds. The challenge now is to identify whether sexual selection alone or broader processes, such as social or natural selection, best explain the evolution of elaborate traits in both sexes.

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Acknowledgements

We thank K. Cain, R. Heinsohn, M.K. Richardson, C. Scharff, H. Slabbekoorn and S. Verhulst for helpful comments on the manuscript, and M.D. Crisp, R.D. Edwards, N.R. Friedman and L. Joseph for useful discussion and help with analysis. This research was funded in part by the National Science Foundation and Australian Academy of Science through an East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes graduate research fellowship to K.J.O. N.E.L. was supported by an Australian Research Council Fellowship and Discovery Grant. K.E.O. was supported by NSF grant DEB 1119506. We thank the authors of the pictures used in Fig. 1.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Biological Sciences, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Baltimore, Maryland 21250, USA

    • Karan J. Odom
    •  & Kevin E. Omland
  2. Department of Zoology, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria 3010, Australia

    • Michelle L. Hall
  3. Institute of Biology (IBL), Leiden University, 2333 BE Leiden, The Netherlands

    • Katharina Riebel
  4. Research School of Biology, The Australian National University, Acton, ACT 0200, Australia

    • Naomi E. Langmore

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Contributions

M.L.H., K.R. and N.E.L. conceived the idea for this study. K.J.O, M.L.H., K.R. and N.E.L. collected the data. K.J.O. analysed the data and performed ancestral state reconstruction. K.E.O. contributed to study design and provided feedback on data analysis and interpretation. All authors discussed the results and wrote the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Karan J. Odom.

Supplementary information

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    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figure 1 and Supplementary Table 1

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