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The evolutionary divergence of mating signals provides a powerful basis for animal speciation. Divergence in sympatry strengthens reproductive isolation, and divergence in allopatry can reduce or eliminate gene flow between populations on secondary contact. In birds, the first of these processes has empirical support, but the second remains largely hypothetical. This is perhaps because most studies have focused on oscine passerines, whose song learning ability may reduce the influence of vocalizations in reproductive isolation. In suboscine passerines, the role of learning in song development is thought to be minimal, and the resultant signals are relatively fixed. To investigate the role of song in the early stages of peripatric speciation, we therefore studied a suboscine, the chestnut-tailed antbird Myrmeciza hemimelaena. We recorded male songs in a natural forest island (isolated for < 3000 years) at the southern fringe of Amazonia, and at two nearby sites in continuous forest. A previous study found the isolated population to be weakly differentiated genetically from the ancestral population suggesting that peripatric speciation was underway. In support of this, although we detected minor but significant differences in song structure between each site, the most divergent songs were those of island birds. On simulating secondary contact using playback, we found that pairs from the forest island responded more strongly to island (i.e. local) songs than to those from both non-island sites, and vice versa. This pattern was not observed in pairs from one non-island site, which responded with equal strength to local songs and songs from the other non-island site. Island females were more likely to approach and sing after hearing local male songs, rather than songs from the non-island populations, and vice versa; non-island females did not appear to discriminate between local songs and those from the other non-island site. These findings are consistent with the idea that vocal divergence arising in small populations at the edge of Amazonia may result in partial reproductive isolation when contact is resumed. They also suggest the possibility that song divergence in peripatry may, after much longer time-frames, act as a barrier to gene flow in suboscines, perhaps because of an inability to learn or recognize divergent songs on secondary contact. © 2007 The Linnean Society of London.

Original publication




Journal article


Biological Journal of the Linnean Society

Publication Date





173 - 188