Speciation by host switch in brood parasitic indigobirds


A growing body of empirical and theoretical work supports the plausibility of sympatric speciation1,2,3, but there remain few examples in which all the essential components of the process are well understood. The African indigobirds Vidua spp. are host-specific brood parasites. Indigobird nestlings are reared along with host young, and mimic the mouth markings of their respective hosts4,5,6. As adults, male indigobirds mimic host song4,5,6,7, whereas females use these songs to choose both their mates and the nests they parasitize8. These behavioural mechanisms promote the cohesion of indigobird populations associated with a given host species, and provide a mechanism for reproductive isolation after a new host is colonized. Here we show that all indigobird species are similar genetically, but are significantly differentiated in both mitochondrial haplotype and nuclear allele frequencies. These data support a model of recent sympatric speciation. In contrast to the cuckoo Cuculus canorus, in which only female lineages are faithful to specific hosts9,10, host switches have led to speciation in indigobirds because both males and females imprint on their hosts8,11.

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Figure 1: Examples of morphological variation between indigobird species.
Figure 2: mtDNA haplotype trees for indigobirds.
Figure 3: mtDNA phylogeny of brood parasitic finches and their estrildid finch host species.


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For comments, logistical support, and assistance in the field and lab, we thank Laura Payne, Chris Balakrishnan, Clive Barlow, Adrian Craig, Nick Davies, Roger Fotso, Kathy Groschupf, Janet Hinshaw, Mark Hopkins, Kit Hustler, Lacey Knowles, Kevin Njabo, Nedra Klein, David Mindell, and Bob Stjernstedt. Funding was provided by US National Science Foundation Grants to R.B.P. and M.D.S. and an Erwin Schrödinger Fellowship from the Austrian Science Fund for K.M.S.

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Correspondence to Michael D. Sorenson.

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Sorenson, M., Sefc, K. & Payne, R. Speciation by host switch in brood parasitic indigobirds. Nature 424, 928–931 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature01863

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