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Concept: Wren


Although recreational birdwatchers may benefit conservation by generating interest in birds, they may also have negative effects. One such potentially negative impact is the widespread use of recorded vocalizations, or “playback,” to attract birds of interest, including range-restricted and threatened species. Although playback has been widely used to test hypotheses about the evolution of behavior, no peer-reviewed study has examined the impacts of playback in a birdwatching context on avian behavior. We studied the effects of simulated birdwatchers' playback on the vocal behavior of Plain-tailed Wrens Thryothorus euophrys and Rufous Antpittas Grallaria rufula in Ecuador. Study species' vocal behavior was monitored for an hour after playing either a single bout of five minutes of song or a control treatment of background noise. We also studied the effects of daily five minute playback on five groups of wrens over 20 days. In single bout experiments, antpittas made more vocalizations of all types, except for trills, after playback compared to controls. Wrens sang more duets after playback, but did not produce more contact calls. In repeated playback experiments, wren responses were strong at first, but hardly detectable by day 12. During the study, one study group built a nest, apparently unperturbed, near a playback site. The playback-induced habituation and changes in vocal behavior we observed suggest that scientists should consider birdwatching activity when selecting research sites so that results are not biased by birdwatchers' playback. Increased vocalizations after playback could be interpreted as a negative effect of playback if birds expend energy, become stressed, or divert time from other activities. In contrast, the habituation we documented suggests that frequent, regular birdwatchers' playback may have minor effects on wren behavior.

Concepts: Birdwatching, Bewick's Wren, Affect, Hypothesis, Carolina Wren, Scientific method, Effect, Wren


The New Zealand acanthisittid wrens are the sister-taxon to all other “perching birds” (Passeriformes) and - including recently extinct species - represent the most diverse endemic passerine family in New Zealand. Consequently, they are important for understanding both the early evolution of Passeriformes and the New Zealand biota. However, five of the seven species have become extinct since the arrival of humans in New Zealand, complicating evolutionary analyses. The results of morphological analyses have been largely equivocal, and no comprehensive genetic analysis of Acanthisittidae has been undertaken. We present novel mitochondrial genome sequences from four acanthisittid species (three extinct, one extant), allowing us to resolve the phylogeny and revise the taxonomy of acanthisittids. Reanalysis of morphological data in light of our genetic results confirms a close relationship between the extant rifleman (Acanthisitta chloris) and an extinct Miocene wren (Kuiornis indicator), making Kuiornis a useful calibration point for molecular dating of passerines. Our molecular dating analyses reveal that the stout-legged wrens (Pachyplichas) diverged relatively recently from a more gracile (Xenicus-like) ancestor. Further, our results suggest a possible Early Oligocene origin of the basal Lyall’s wren (Traversia) lineage, which would imply that Acanthisittidae survived the Oligocene marine inundation of New Zealand and therefore that the inundation was not complete.

Concepts: Maluridae, Gene, DNA, Wren, Evolution, New Zealand wren, Passerine, Bird


Despite classical expectations of a trade-off between immune activity and reproduction, an emergent view suggests that individuals experiencing activation of their immune system actually increase reproductive effort and allocation to offspring as a form of terminal investment in response to reduced survival probability. However, the components and mechanisms of increased parental investment following immunostimulation are currently unknown. We hypothesize that increased glucocorticoid production following immunostimulation modulates the increase in reproductive effort that constitutes terminal investment. We activated the immune system of breeding female house wrens (Troglodytes aedon) with an immunogen and cross-fostered the eggs that they subsequently produced to separate prenatal and postnatal components of maternal investment. Cross-fostering revealed an increase in both pre- and postnatal allocation from immunostimulated females, which was confirmed by quantification of egg constituents and maternal provisioning behavior. The increase in maternal provisioning was mediated, at least in part, by increased corticosterone in these females. Offspring immune responsiveness was also enhanced through transgenerational immune priming via the egg. Thus, our results indicate that maternal immunostimulation induces transgenerational effects on offspring through both pre- and postnatal parental effects and support an important role for corticosterone in mediating parental investment.

Concepts: Parental investment, Antigen, Wren, Offspring, Parent, Antibody, Immune system, Reproduction


A key question in evolutionary genetics is why certain mutations or certain types of mutation make disproportionate contributions to adaptive phenotypic evolution. In principle, the preferential fixation of particular mutations could stem directly from variation in the underlying rate of mutation to function-altering alleles. However, the influence of mutation bias on the genetic architecture of phenotypic evolution is difficult to evaluate because data on rates of mutation to function-altering alleles are seldom available. Here, we report the discovery that a single point mutation at a highly mutable site in the β(A)-globin gene has contributed to an evolutionary change in hemoglobin (Hb) function in high-altitude Andean house wrens (Troglodytes aedon). Results of experiments on native Hb variants and engineered, recombinant Hb mutants demonstrate that a nonsynonymous mutation at a CpG dinucleotide in the β(A)-globin gene is responsible for an evolved difference in Hb-O2 affinity between high- and low-altitude house wren populations. Moreover, patterns of genomic differentiation between high- and low-altitude populations suggest that altitudinal differentiation in allele frequencies at the causal amino acid polymorphism reflects a history of spatially varying selection. The experimental results highlight the influence of mutation rate on the genetic basis of phenotypic evolution by demonstrating that a large-effect allele at a highly mutable CpG site has promoted physiological differentiation in blood O2 transport capacity between house wren populations that are native to different elevations.

Concepts: Wren, Natural selection, Allele frequency, Mutation, Gene, DNA, Genetics, Evolution


We evaluated the maternal transfer of mercury to eggs in songbirds, determined whether this relationship differed between songbird species, and developed equations for predicting mercury concentrations in eggs from maternal blood. We sampled blood and feathers from 44 house wren (Troglodytes aedon) and 34 tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) mothers and collected their full clutches (n = 476 eggs) within 3 days of clutch completion. Additionally, we sampled blood and feathers from 53 tree swallow mothers and randomly collected one egg from their clutches (n = 53 eggs) during mid to late incubation (6-10 days incubated) to evaluate whether the relationship varied with the timing of sampling the mother’s blood. Mercury concentrations in eggs were positively correlated with mercury concentrations in maternal blood sampled at (1) the time of clutch completion for both house wrens (R(2) = 0.97) and tree swallows (R(2) = 0.97) and (2) during mid to late incubation for tree swallows (R(2) = 0.71). The relationship between mercury concentrations in eggs and maternal blood did not differ with the stage of incubation when maternal blood was sampled. Importantly, the proportion of mercury transferred from mothers to their eggs decreased substantially with increasing blood mercury concentrations in tree swallows, but increased slightly with increasing blood mercury concentrations in house wrens. Additionally, the proportion of mercury transferred to eggs at the same maternal blood mercury concentration differed between species. Specifically, tree swallow mothers transferred 17%-107% more mercury to their eggs than house wren mothers over the observed mercury concentrations in maternal blood (0.15-1.92 μg/g ww). In contrast, mercury concentrations in eggs were not correlated with those in maternal feathers and, likewise, mercury concentrations in maternal blood were not correlated with those in feathers (all R(2) < 0.01). We provide equations to translate mercury concentrations from maternal blood to eggs (and vice versa), which should facilitate comparisons among studies and help integrate toxicity benchmarks into a common tissue.

Concepts: Troglodytes, House Wren, Tachycineta, Tree Swallow, Swallow, Wren


There is growing interest in latitudinal effects on animal behaviour and life history. One recent focus is on birdsong, which is hypothesized to be more elaborated or complex in the north temperate zone compared with the tropics. Current evidence is mixed and based on cross-species comparisons, or single species with restricted distributions. We circumvent these limitations using a transcontinental sample of 358 songs from house wrens (Troglodytes aedon) at 281 locations spanning more than 100° of latitude (52° N-55° S) across the Americas. We found a significant latitudinal gradient in several basic elements of song performance and complexity between north temperate and tropical populations. Furthermore, we document convergence in song patterns between populations at higher latitudes in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Effects were strongest for the number of elements in a song, and the rate of element production, both increasing towards the poles, with similar but weaker effects for other song dimensions (e.g. number of unique elements, trills and trill rate). We consider possible causes related to variable habitats and morphology, concluding that the shorter breeding seasons at higher latitudes in both hemispheres may favour greater song elaboration to mediate territory competition and mate choice.

Concepts: Equator, Wren, House Wren, Tropic of Cancer, Temperateness, Geographical zone, Arctic Circle, Climate


Achieving long-term persistence of species in urbanized landscapes requires characterizing population genetic structure in order to understand and manage the effects of anthropogenic disturbance on connectivity. Urbanization over the past century in coastal southern California has caused both precipitous loss of coastal sage scrub habitat and declines in populations of the cactus wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus). Using 22 microsatellite loci, we found that remnant cactus wren aggregations in coastal southern California comprised 20 populations based upon strict exact tests for population differentiation, and 12 genetic clusters with hierarchical Bayesian clustering analyses. Genetic structure patterns largely mirrored underlying habitat availability, with cluster and population boundaries coinciding with fragmentation caused primarily by urbanization. Using a habitat model we developed, we detected stronger associations between habitat-based distances and genetic distances than Euclidean geographic distance. Within populations, we detected a positive association between available local habitat and allelic richness and a negative association with relatedness. Isolation by distance patterns varied over the study area, which we attribute to temporal differences in anthropogenic landscape development. We also found that genetic bottleneck signals were associated with wildfire frequency. These results indicate that habitat fragmentation and alterations have reduced genetic connectivity and diversity of cactus wren populations in coastal southern California. Management efforts focused on improving connectivity among remaining populations may help to ensure population persistence. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

Concepts: Arizona, Demography, Biology, Cactus Wren, Campylorhynchus, Wren, Coastal sage scrub, Population genetics


In many species, females produce fewer offspring than they are capable of rearing, possibly because increases in current reproductive effort come at the expense of a female’s own survival and future reproduction. To test this, we induced female house wrens (Troglodytes aedon) to lay more eggs than they normally would and assessed the potential costs of increasing cumulative investment in the three main components of the avian breeding cycle - egg laying, incubation, and nestling provisioning. Females with increased clutch sizes reared more offspring in the first brood than controls, but fledged a lower proportion of nestlings. Moreover, nestlings of experimental females were lighter than those of control females as brood size and pre-fledging mass were negatively correlated. In second broods of the season, when females were not manipulated, experimental females laid the same number of eggs as controls, but experienced an intra-seasonal cost through reduced hatchling survival and a lower number of young fledged. Offspring of control and experimental females were equally likely to recruit to the breeding population, although control females produced more recruits per egg laid. The reproductive success of recruits from broods of experimental and control females did not differ. The manipulation also induced inter-seasonal costs to future reproduction, as experimental females had lower fecundity than controls when breeding at least two years after having their reproductive effort experimentally increased. Finally, females producing the modal clutch size of seven eggs in their first broods had the highest lifetime number of fledglings. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

Concepts: Copyright, Hermaphrodite, Human, Wren, House Wren, Female, Male, Reproduction


Naturally subdivided populations such as those occupying high-altitude habitat patches of the ‘alpine archipelago’ can provide significant insight into past biogeographical change and serve as useful models for predicting future responses to anthropogenic climate change. Among New Zealand’s alpine taxa, phylogenetic studies support two major radiations: the first correlating with geological forces (Pliocene uplift) and the second with climatic processes (Pleistocene glaciations). The rock wren (Xenicus gilviventris) is a threatened alpine passerine belonging to the endemic New Zealand wren family (Acanthisittidae). Rock wren constitute a widespread, naturally fragmented population, occurring in patches of suitable habitat over c. 900 m in altitude throughout the length of the South Island, New Zealand. We investigated the relative role of historical geological versus climatic processes in shaping the genetic structure of rock wren (N = 134) throughout their range. Using microsatellites combined with nuclear and mtDNA sequence data, we identify a deep north-south divergence in rock wren (3.7 ± 0.5% at cytochrome b) consistent with the glacial refugia hypothesis whereby populations were restricted in isolated refugia during the Pleistocene c. 2 Ma. This is the first study of an alpine vertebrate to test and provide strong evidence for the glacial refugia hypothesis as an explanation for the low endemicity central zone known as the biotic ‘gap’ in the South Island of New Zealand.

Concepts: Earth, New Zealand, Biology, New Zealand wren, Passerine, Pleistocene, Wren, Climate change


Two new species of the feather mite family Gabucinidae (Acari: Astigmata) are described from birds of the family Troglodytidae (Passeriformes) from Central America: Piciformobia cinnycerthiae sp. nov. from Cinnycerthia unirufa (Lafresnaye) in Ecuador, and P. henicorhinae sp. nov. from Henicorhina leucosticte (Cabanis) in Costa Rica. These are the first records of mites of the genus Piciformobia Gaud et Atyeo, 1975 from passerine hosts. A renewed diagnosis of the genus Piciformobia and key to all known species are provided.

Concepts: Bird, Indigenous peoples of the Americas, Passerine, Spanish language, Acari, Central America, Wren, Costa Rica