Phylogeny and evolution of sexually selected tail ornamentation in widowbirds and bishops (Euplectes spp.)
Journal article, 2009
Despite similar ecology, mating systems and female preferences for supernormal tails, the 17 species of African widowbirds and bishops (Euplectes spp.) show astonishing variation in male tail ornamentation. Whereas bishops retain their brown nonbreeding tails in nuptial plumage, widowbirds grow black nuptial tails, varying in length from a few centimetres in E. axillaris to the extreme half metre train of E. progne. Here, we phylogenetically reconstruct the evolution of the discrete trait, nuptial tail and the continuous trait, tail length, using a molecular phylogeny of 33 Euplectes subspecies. Unlike many recent findings of labile evolution of plumage ornaments, our results suggest that the nuptial tail of Euplectes is a derived and phylogenetically conserved ornamental trait that, once gained, shows directional evolution in its expression. Directionality is demonstrated in the trivial sense of a short-tailed ancestor, and by contingency and randomization tests suggesting that branches with increasing tail length are overrepresented. This supports an early origin and strong retention of directional female mate choice in widowbirds and bishops, as previously indicated by empirical and experimental results, and provides a less labile, yet rapid scenario of sexually selected diversification.