A global analysis of bird plumage patterns reveals no association between habitat and camouflage

Marius Somveille*, Kate L.A. Marshall, Thanh Lan Gluckman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Evidence suggests that animal patterns (motifs) function in camouflage. Irregular mottled patterns can facilitate concealment when stationary in cluttered habitats, whereas regular patterns typically prevent capture during movement in open habitats. Bird plumage patterns have predominantly converged on just four types-mottled (irregular), scales, bars and spots (regular)-and habitat could be driving convergent evolution in avian patterning. Based on sensory ecology, we therefore predict that irregular patterns would be associated with visually noisy closed habitats and that regular patterns would be associated with open habitats. Regular patterns have also been shown to function in communication for sexually competing males to stand-out and attract females, so we predict that male breeding plumage patterns evolved in both open and closed habitats. Here, taking phylogenetic relatedness into account, we investigate ecological selection for bird plumage patterns across the class Aves. We surveyed plumage patterns in 80% of all avian species worldwide. Of these, 2,756 bird species have regular and irregular plumage patterns as well as habitat information. In this subset, we tested whether adult breeding/non-breeding plumages in each sex, and juvenile plumages, were associated with the habitat types found within the species' geographical distributions. We found no evidence for an association between habitat and plumage patterns across the world's birds and little phylogenetic signal. We also found that species with regular and irregular plumage patterns were distributed randomly across the world's eco-regions without being affected by habitat type. These results indicate that at the global spatial and taxonomic scale, habitat does not predict convergent evolution in bird plumage patterns, contrary to the camouflage hypothesis.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2658
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 9 Nov 2016

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • camouflage
  • ecological selection
  • macroevolution
  • natural selection
  • plumage patterns
  • signalling


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