Sexually selected traits predict patterns of species richness in a diverse clade of suboscine birds.
Seddon N., Merrill RM., Tobias JA.
Whether sexual selection acts as an "engine of speciation" is controversial. Some studies suggest that it promotes the evolution of reproductive isolation, while others find no relationship between sexual selection and species richness. However, the explanatory power of previous models may have been constrained because they employed coarse-scale, between-family comparisons and used mating systems and morphological cues as surrogates for sexual selection. In birds, an obvious missing predictor is song, a sexually selected trait that functions in mate choice and reproductive isolation. We investigated the extent to which plumage dichromatism and song structure predicted species richness in a diverse family of Neotropical suboscine birds, the antbirds (Thamnophilidae). These analyses revealed a positive relationship between the intensity of sexual selection and diversity: genera with higher levels of dichromatism and lower-pitched, more complex songs contained greater numbers of species. This relationship held when controlling for phylogeny and was strengthened by the inclusion of subspecies, suggesting that sexual selection has played a role in the diversification of antbirds. This is the first study to reveal correlations between song structure and species diversity, emphasizing the importance of acoustic signals, and within-family analyses, in comparative studies of sexual selection.