Songs of Isolation?

By Pyper, Wendy | Ecos, July-September 2000 | Go to article overview

Songs of Isolation?


Pyper, Wendy, Ecos


The songs of upland bowerbirds vary uniquely from place to place and are as culturally distinct from one another as regional dialects or languages are to humans.

In the cool rainforests of Queensland's tropical north, an evolution in communication is under way. The songs of birds, restricted to these `upland' forests for millennia, have provided the first evidence that the geographic isolation of bird populations can promote song variation within species. The discovery, by David Westcott and his colleagues from the CSIRO Tropical Forest Research Centre and the CRC for Tropical Rainforest Ecology, has its origins in climatic history.

About 7500 years ago, cool rainforest covered much of the wet tropics region. But a period of warming, between 2000 and 5000 years ago, saw these cool rainforests contract to upland areas, about 600 metres above sea level, while warmer forest types dominated lower areas. As the cool rainforests contracted, so did the habitat of many species of birds, including the golden bowerbird, the fernwren and the mountain thornbill. This contraction fragmented the birds' habitat and saw populations of these endemic species split and become isolated: a process biogeographers call `vicariance'.

Today, 13 bird species are endemic to the upland rainforests of the wet tropics, and exist in isolated populations between Cook Town and Townsville. What Westcott and his colleagues wanted to know, was whether this isolation (vicariance) had affected the birds, and, if so, how.

Birdsong is thought to evolve through a number of selective forces, such as natural selection (environmental pressure), sexual or social selection, and drift (vagaries of the learning process). So Westcott suspected that vicariance could play a role in promoting song variation among birds of the same species.

To test this theory, he recorded the songs of seven upland bird species and seven species of `altitudinal generalists' -- birds distributed across the upland and lowland regions -- in seven rainforest blocks between Cook Town and Townsville.

He then analysed the 578 recorded songs using computer software that allowed him to measure a range of variables in song structure.

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