Elaborate plumages and songs in male birds provide classic evidence for Darwinian sexual selection. However, trait elaboration in birds is not gender-restricted: female song has recently been revealed as a taxonomically-widespread trait within the songbirds (oscine Passerines), prompting increased research into likely functions and social/ecological correlates. Here we use phylogenetically-informed comparative analysis to test for an evolutionary association between female song and plumage color elaboration in songbirds. If there is an evolutionary trade-off between signaling modes, we predict a negative correlation between acoustic and visual elaboration. This trade-off hypothesis has been commonly proposed in males but has mixed empirical support. Alternatively, if song and plumage have similar or overlapping functions and evolve under similar selection pressures, we predict a positive correlation between female song and female plumage elaboration. We use published data on female song for 1023 species of songbirds and a novel approach that allows for the reliable and objective comparison of color elaboration between species and genders. Our results reveal a significant positive correlation between female colorfulness and female song presence. In species where females sing, females (but not males) are on average more colorful—with concomitantly reduced average sexual dichromatism. These results suggest that female plumage and female song likely evolved together under similar selection pressures and that their respective functions are reinforcing. We discuss the potential roles of sexual vs. social selection in driving this relationship, and the implications for future research on female signals.
Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 2016, 4 pp. 1 - 8 (8)