Acta Zoologica Sinica
© 2006 Acta Zoologica Sinica
S18-2 Phylogenetic studies of plumage evolution and speciation in New
World orioles (Icterus)
Kevin E. OMLAND
, Beatrice KONDO
Dept. of Biological Sciences, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Baltimore, MD 21250, USA;
Abstract Detailed molecular phylogenies of closely related species provide an unprecedented opportunity to study the
relationship between plumage evolution and speciation. Through reconstruction of ancestral character states, phylogenies
enable us to separate convergence from similarity due to shared ancestry, and gains of plumage ornaments from losses.
Molecular phylogenies also provide information for inferring the details of speciation: which species split, when the splits
occurred, and even whether one species is nested genetically within another. We have used these approaches in a series of
studies on plumage evolution and speciation in New World orioles (Icterus). A genus-wide study of 44 individual plumage
ornaments revealed evidence of repeated convergence and reversal. Two overall plumage types, moreover, have evolved
independently in the three clades of orioles. We then conducted a detailed study focused on the “northern oriole” group.
Multiple samples from throughout the ranges of the Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula; eastern North America) and the black-
backed oriole (Icterus abeillei; central Mexico) confirm that these two species are each other’s closest relatives, and that they
probably split very recently. They differ from each other in many plumage traits, providing a dramatic example of rapid
divergence in signal characters. In orioles, it seems likely that much of this plumage divergence occurred in allopatry. Nevertheless,
lineages that have evolved plumage differences in allopatry may be less likely to remerge upon secondary contact. Such a
process could account for published correlations between signal divergence and species richness.
Key words Ancestral state reconstruction, Icterus, Phylogeny, Plumage evolution, Speciation
In recent years, molecular phylogenies based on mi-
tochondrial DNA sequences have provided an unprec-
edented source of information for studying plumage evolu-
tion and speciation. Prior to this technology, phylogenies
for closely related bird species were often not even
attempted. For example, before our studies of the New World
orioles, only one study examined the entire genus of 25+
species, and then without attempting a comprehensive phy-
logeny (Beecher, 1950). Although closely related species of
birds often have well-marked morphological differences,
these differences may involve only one or two plumage
characters. Thus there are generally too few informative
characters to allow construction of well-resolved phylog-
enies for close relatives (Omland and Lanyon, 2000).
Similarly, earlier molecular methods such as DNA-DNA
hybridization, allozyme electrophoresis, and nuclear cod-
ing sequences are generally not sensitive enough to posi-
tion closely related species. Early phylogenies based on
mitochondrial DNA restriction sites and sequences (e.g.,
Kessler and Avise, 1984; Zink and Avise, 1990) opened up
new possibilities for studying species limits, speciation, and
rapidly evolving characters such as plumage and song.
Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequences continue to
provide the best estimates of phylogenies for closely re-
lated species because nuclear DNA sequences have sev-
eral serious limitations. First, nuclear autosomal DNA has a
larger effective population size than mtDNA, and is there-
fore more likely to share ancestral polymorphisms between
species (Palumbi et al., 2001). Secondly, nuclear DNA does
not accumulate mutations as rapidly as mtDNA, and is
harder to work with than mtDNA, both in the laboratory
and in the analysis stage (Avise, 2000).
Having well-resolved species-level phylogenies from
mtDNA studies provides two main advantages for our un-
derstanding of plumage evolution and speciation. First, we
can use phylogenies to reconstruct ancestral character
states. By scoring the characteristics of present day species,
we can infer the likely evolutionary changes that have taken
place in the past through the principle of parsimony or maxi-
mum likelihood (e.g., Cunningham et al., 1998). For example,
Fig. 1 shows a hypothetical phylogeny of two sister clades
of four species each. The presence or absence of an elabo-
rate plumage ornament is reconstructed on the phylogeny
using simple parsimony (see Omland, 1997).
This reconstruction enables us to infer two key as-
pects of signal evolution. First of all, it provides evidence
of convergent evolution of the ornament: it evolved once in
species B in the left clade, and it also evolved early in the
history of the right clade. Secondly, the phylogeny enables
us to distinguish gains from losses. For example, if A and B
52(Supplement): 320–326, 2006
Kevin E. OMLAND et al.: Speciation and phylogeny of plumages
are sister species, either species A lost the ornament or
species B gained it. Knowing that species C and D are
unornamented sister lineages enables us to infer that there
was a recent gain in species B. Similarly, parsimony recon-
structs a recent loss of the feather ornament in species Y,
which is nested within a group of three species that all have
This example highlights another advantage of phylo-
genetic information: phylogenies can be used to pinpoint
the best species for behavioral studies. For example, spe-
cies B is much better than species W, X or Z in the right
clade for investigating why species gain ornamentation.
The right clade may well have evolved elaborate ornamen-
tation in the common ancestor of that clade but a long time
ago. A behavioral ecologist with no knowledge of the phy-
logeny would have a 75% chance of noticing and studying
the ornament in species W, X or Z, holding him/her back
from inferring the selective forces that led to its origin. Much,
moreover, can be learned by studying species Y, which has
recently lost the ornament. Admittedly, many explicit and
implicit assumptions need to be acknowledged in such an-
cestral state reconstructions (Omland, 1997; Cunningham
et al., 1998; Omland, 1999); yet when applied across many
characters (Omland and Lanyon, 2000) or across multiple
groups, ancestral reconstructions can provide a sound ba-
sis for evolutionary inference.
The other advantage of molecular phylogenies in
studies of speciation and signal evolution is their provision
of sound data on speciation itself. A phylogeny can tell us
which taxa have speciated most recently. For example, with-
out a phylogeny, we might assume that two parapatric taxa
are each other’s closest relatives, and make assumptions
about how the two taxa split. This problem surfaced in the
“northern oriole” group (Omland et al., 1999), as detailed
below. Genetic distances among taxa can also be used to
infer when two species split. Using molecular clocks to date
evolutionary events may be controversial, and indeed many
assumptions go into such calculations which gives rise to
skepticism (Hillis et al., 1996; Fleischer et al., 1998). Even so,
much can be learned about speciation by comparing rela-
tive levels of divergence. A well-known example of how
molecular clocks have been applied to studies of bird spe-
ciation is the work of Klicka and Zink (1997), who showed
that levels of divergence between putative sister species in
the eastern and western US were much deeper than would
be expected if speciation was caused by the most recent
cycles of late-Pleistocene glaciation (cf. Avise and Walker,
1998; Arbogast and Slowinski, 1998).
Molecular data can also provide evidence of the ge-
netic nesting of one species within another (e.g.,
paraphyletic species). Such findings provide a unique op-
portunity to study speciation and character evolution, es-
pecially because it enables reconstruction of character
changes and the timing of speciation with more precision
than allowed by other means. In birds, there are several
cases of likely paraphyly resulting from recent speciation,
involving, among others, mallards (Anas platyrhynchos)
and the American black ducks (Anas rubripes) (Avise et al.,
1990; Omland, 1997), though this example could also reflect
hybridization (Broadsky et al., 1988).
Phylogenies are, in addition, particularly useful in re-
search that employs the comparative method (sensu Harvey
and Pagel, 1991). This paper will not present results based
on the comparative method, but the discussion will address
several studies that have used it to evaluate correlations
between rates of speciation and plumage coloration. Rather,
we simply review results of our research into speciation
and plumage evolution in Icterus.
2 Oriole plumage reconstruction and
2.1 Phylogenetic reconstruction of plumage patterns
Sexually selected characters such as plumage colora-
tion have long been assumed to evolve rapidly and be sub-
ject to high levels of convergence (Omland and Lanyon,
2000). However, no empirical studies of all plumage traits
had been conducted using a well-resolved independent
phylogeny. mtDNA sequences were obtained for 45 taxa of
New World orioles: all 25 recognized species and 20 addi-
tional subspecies from the genus Icterus (Omland et al.,
1999). We obtained over 2000 base pairs of sequence from
the cytochrome b and ND2 genes. All methods of analysis
and data combinations identified three main clades, desig-
nated A, B and C) (Fig. 2). Over half of the nodes on the tree
received 95% bootstrap support or more. This well-resolved
tree provided the phylogenetic framework for reconstruct-
ing plumage evolution (sensu Lanyon, 1993). We studied
two aspects of male plumage coloration: 1) individual feather
areas, and 2) overall plumage patterns.
Using museum skins, we scored all the individual
feather areas that varied among oriole species (Omland and
Lanyon, 2000). We found 44 plumage areas that varied, and
scored whether these areas were white, black or pigmented
Fig. 1 Model phylogeny of nine species showing the most
parsimonious reconstruction of changes in a hypothetical
plumage ornament (e.g., colored wing patch or head crest)
The ancestral state reconstruction suggests two convergent gains
of the elaborate ornament, and one subsequent loss.
Acta Zoologica Sinica
with carotenoid (yellow, orange, chestnut, etc). The 44 plum-
age patches were then mapped on to the molecular phylog-
eny to reconstruct ancestral plumage changes. Forty two
of the 44 plumage characters showed at least some conver-
gence or reversal (homoplasy) (Omland and Lanyon, 2000);
the two characters that did not show any homoplasy in-
volved character states that simply united different sub-
species of the same species. Most plumage characters ap-
peared independently many times on the phylogenetic re-
construction (i.e., high levels of homoplasy). For example,
Fig. 2 incorporates reconstruction of crown coloration, sug-
gesting independent gains of colored crown feathers (e.g.,
orange or yellow) at least six times, and at lease one subse-
quent reversal to black. Other less parsimonious reconstruc-
tions are possible, but clearly individual feather areas in
orioles are evolving rapidly, and with high levels of conver-
gence and reversal.
Reconstruction of overall patterns also revealed much
evidence of convergence and reversal (Omland and Lanyon,
2000). We identified two main plumage types that had
evolved multiple times within the genus Icterus. Species
with the “Baltimore” plumage type have completely black
heads, and consistent white edging in the secondary co-
verts and flight feathers. Species with the “Altamira” plum-
age type have colored heads and crowns, but black fore-
heads and necks, and a distinct white spot on the outer
primaries. These two plumage types represent extremes in a
continuum of plumage convergence values (Omland and
Lanyon, 2000: Fig. 8), involving species that show greater
than 8% sequence divergence and range from only 3 to as
many as 37 differences in plumage. Three species that show
the “Baltimore” type are found in different parts of two
clades: Baltimore oriole (I. galbula) and Scott’s oriole (I.
parisorum) in clade C, and orchard oriole (I. spurius) in
clade A. Species with the “Altamira” type are found in all
three clades: clade A, hooded oriole (I. cucullatus), clade B,
spot-breasted oriole (I. pectoralis), and clade C, Altamira
oriole (I. gularis) (Fig. 2).
The occurrence of both plumage types throughout
the oriole tree strongly suggests convergence, but this pat-
tern could also occur if the mtDNA phylogeny is misleading.
Sequences from a nuclear intron (ODC; Friesen et al., 1999)
from 10 oriole species confirm the basic structure of the
mitochondrial tree, and reveal the same three main clades
(E. S. Allen and K. E. Omland, unpublished data). They also
verify that species within each of the two plumage types
are not each others’ closest relatives, thus providing strong
support for convergence and reversal in producing the two
Fig. 2 Ancestral state reconstruction of crown and nape pigmentation on to the oriole mtDNA phylogeny (from Omland et al.,
1999: Fig. 6)
“Colored” refers to orange or yellow coloration likely to come from carotenoid pigments. Species that exemplify the two overall plumage
types are indicated above the taxon names.
main plumage types.
Our phylogenetic studies of both individual areas and
overall patterns of plumage provide a much clearer picture
of plumage evolution. Plumage characters are indeed chang-
ing very rapidly, probably due to sexual selection. However,
the repeated convergence, reversal, and high levels of ho-
moplasy that we found are generally not predicted by mod-
els of sexual selection (Andersson, 1994; cf. Ryan et al.,
1990). Similarly, convergence would not be predicted if plum-
age divergence was strongly correlated with speciation. If
plumage plays a major role in species recognition, then there
is no reason why unrelated species of Icterus should be
expected to evolve similar plumage areas or overall patterns.
Rather, it seems much more likely that genetic or develop-
mental processes have constrained the numbers of colors
and patterns in New World orioles (Omland and Lanyon,
2000). Individual plumage patches may be changing rapidly
but only according to a restricted set of character states.
Convergence in overall pattern, moreover, may result from
a few genes turning modular plumage elements on and off.
Price and Pavelka (1996) studied plumage patterns in
Old World warblers, and also suggested the importance of
developmental constraints. Such constraints may operate
within many other genera that seem to have an overall plum-
age template with variations on that theme (e.g., Old World
orioles, cardueline finches, Australasian sericornithine
warblers). In contrast, other groups of birds seem much
more free to vary (e.g., Anas ducks, birds of paradise), with
nearly every species evolving novel patterns and
autapomorphic ornaments. Eventually we will need
genomics and other approaches to understand the genetic
and developmental control of plumage coloration in birds
(e.g., Theron et al., 2001). As a first step, we are using spec-
trophotometry and other methods to reconstruct changes
in pigment types and better understand the mechanistic
basis of plumage color and pattern in orioles. Some oriole
species, for example, have colored patches that may not be
carotenoid (C. Hofmann and K. E. Omland, unpublished
2.2 Speciation in the northern oriole group
The “northern oriole” group has served as the focus
for more detailed studies of speciation and plumage
evolution. Three taxa with distinct plumage patterns had
previously been combined in one species, “northern oriole”,
because of hybridization (reviewed in Rising and Flood,
1998). The eastern Baltimore oriole (I. galbula) has an ex-
tensive hybrid zone with the western Bullock’s oriole (I.
bullockii) in the midwestern US. The black-backed oriole
(I. abeillei) from Mexico was also lumped into this group
because it also hybridized with Bullock’s in northern Mexico.
No previous studies had suggested, however, that other
Mexican species such as the streak-backed oriole (I.
pustulatus) might be included in this species group as well.
Our mtDNA phylogeny of the whole genus revealed
some surprising relationships among these species (Fig. 2).
Bullock’s oriole is not at all close to the Baltimore oriole —
the two are over 4% divergent in mtDNA coding sequence.
The only monophyletic group that unites these two spe-
cies also includes six other species from Mexico, South
America and the Caribbean (Omland et al., 1999). The most
surprising outcome was the sister relationship between
black-backed oriole and Baltimore orioles. The two indi-
viduals sequenced were extremely closely related — ap-
proximately 0.5% for the combined cytochrome b and ND2
Because Baltimore and black-backed orioles are so
closely related, they provide an unusual opportunity to in-
vestigate when, where and how speciation may have
occurred. We obtained samples of both taxa from through-
out their respective breeding ranges in North America and
Mexico, and sequenced cytochrome b and the control
region. This extensive sampling revealed extremely small
levels of divergence between the two taxa: there is only a
single base pair substitution in cytochrome b (from over
900 bp sequenced) that separates the most closely related
individuals of the two species (B. Kondo and K. E. Omland,
unpublished). These two species provide the most dramatic
example of rapid plumage divergence in Icterus. Baltimore
and black-backed males differ in 17 individual plumage
areas, and have quite different overall patterns (Omland
and Lanyon, 2000), yet are about as closely related as any
two oriole species can be.
2.3 Reconstructing dichromatism and delayed plumage
maturation in Icterus
We are also using the phylogeny to reconstruct the
history of sexual dichromatism and delayed plumage matu-
ration in the genus. Rigorous scoring of female and imma-
ture plumages requires more subtle methods, including
spectrophotometry. Some general trends are already
emerging. Most tropical oriole species are sexually
monochromatic, both males and females having contrast-
ing and elaborate black, white and carotenoid colored
patterns. It seems likely that many lineages have colonized
temperate habitats through long-distance migration, and
that these species have lost bright female coloration inde-
pendently (K. E. Omland, unpublished data). It also seems
likely that delayed plumage maturation is ancestral for the
genus Icterus, and that a few lineages may have lost it.
Studying the loss of delayed plumage maturation in these
species may provide unique insights into the evolution of
this paradoxical life history characteristic.
New World orioles have proven to be an excellent
model group for phylogenetic studies of plumage evolu-
tion and speciation. Our mtDNA phylogeny has provided a
firm framework for these studies, showing that individual
feather areas and overall plumage patterns are evolving rap-
idly and convergently. Mitochondrial data are also inform-
ing us about speciation in Icterus, especially in the “north-
ern oriole” group. Baltimore and black-backed orioles have
speciated very recently, and provide a well-documented
Kevin E. OMLAND et al.: Speciation and phylogeny of plumages
Acta Zoologica Sinica
example of just how rapidly bird plumage coloration can
evolve. But what role has speciation played in plumage
divergence; and conversely, how has plumage divergence
helped drive speciation?
During the early years of the biological species
concept, many papers addressed the possible role of bird
plumage coloration in species recognition (e.g., Sibley, 1957;
Mayr, 1963). However, during the 1980s and 1990s this is-
sue was largely neglected, as studies focused on the role of
elaborate plumage in intra-specific mate choice (reviewed
in Andersson, 1994). More recently several comparative
studies have documented a correlation between various
indices of plumage coloration and species richness
(Barraclough et al., 1995; Owens et al., 1999; Panhuis et al.,
2001). Many of these studies used dichromatism as an in-
dex of plumage coloration (e.g., Barraclough et al., 1995;
Owens et al., 1999).
Yet such an index needs to be used with caution.
Dichromatism may work well in groups in which many spe-
cies are cryptic and monomorphic, and the most elaborately
ornamented species strongly dichromatic, such as the spe-
cies of Anas (Omland, 1997). In others, however, it may
work poorly, particularly those such as the New World ori-
oles with bright monomorphic species (e.g., Trail, 1990).
Many oriole species with dramatically contrasting plumage
colors are sexually monochromatic, such as the Altamira
oriole (I. gularis). As a result, orioles would probably have
a fairly low index score despite the fact that they are the
most speciose genus in the Icteridae. Therefore, there is a
conservative bias in the methodology of the index, which
would not account for the significant correlations some-
Early studies that pointed out a correspondence be-
tween plumage ornamentation and species richness often
suggested that this relationship was driven by the need for
species recognition, and invoked reproductive character
displacement (e.g., Sibley, 1957). Slight differences that had
arisen in allopatry would be exaggerated through reinforce-
ment of isolating mechanisms in sympatry, thus contribut-
ing to the tremendous plumage diversity, for example, in
prairie regions where many Anas duck species breed sym-
patrically (Sibley, 1957; Mayr, 1963). Under this scenario,
reinforcement drives the evolution of plumage diversity.
However, cases of reproductive character displacement in
birds are not well established (cf. Saetre et al., 1997).
Rather than character displacement, it seems likely
that plumage differences could evolve entirely by sexual
selection in allopatric populations. The extent of these dif-
ferences could then play a prominent role in determining
whether such forms would remerge or not upon secondary
contact. Here plumage diversity helps drive speciation,
rather than the reverse. New World orioles provide several
case studies for considering the options involved. As dis-
cussed above, Baltimore and Bullock’s orioles are over 4%
different in mtDNA sequences, and differ by sixteen dis-
crete plumage differences. Although the two species form
an extensive hybrid zone, recent research indicates that the
zone is stable and quite ancient (Allen, 2002). Thus the two
species show no evidence of merging, and plumage prefer-
ences may play a role in keeping the species distinct
(reviewed in Allen, 2002).
In contrast, we have documented two mitochondrial
clades in the Common Raven (Corvus corax) that also dif-
fer by about 4% in mtDNA sequence (Omland et al., 2000).
Unlike orioles, however, these birds have no plumage
differences, nor any other phenotypic characters that we
know of, which would enable them to distinguish these two
cryptic clades. In this case, we have evidence that the “Cali-
fornia Clade” and “Holarctic Clade” exchange genes fre-
quently throughout the west and may be remerging
(unpublished data). The contrast between orioles and
ravens illustrates how it is still possible to find correlations
between speciation and plumage coloration (e.g.,
Barraclough et al., 1995; Owens et al., 1999) even in the
absence of reproductive character displacement (also see
Price, 1998; Price, this symposium).
It seems likely that sexual selection in allopatry may
indeed drive plumage divergence in Icterus, and that spe-
ciation is driven largely by geographic isolation. For example,
the Jamaican oriole (I. leucopteryx) is largely confined to
the island of Jamaica, where no other orioles are found.
Nevertheless, this species has a highly distinctive
appearance, and differs from other oriole species in at least
seven plumage areas (Omland and Lanyon, 2000). In this
and other island orioles, there is no evidence that isolated
species lose their plumage differences, nor that continental
species sympatric with other oriole species are more diver-
gent in appearance, cf. Anas ducks (cf., Sibley, 1957; Omland,
1997). In fact, several similar-looking species with the
Altamira-type pattern are sympatric throughout much of
their ranges in Mexico and Central America (e.g., Altamira
oriole and hooded oriole).
Nevertheless, much more work is needed to clarify
the role of plumage in species recognition and reproductive
isolation. Furthermore, research needs to focus on whether
and how speciation drives plumage divergence, especially
when considered in combination with other selective forces.
There are several mechanisms that effect evolution of elabo-
rate plumage ornamentation in birds, and there are studies
that support each of them: 1) sexual selection by female
choice, which has been documented in a large number of
bird species (Andersson, 1982; reviewed in Andersson,
1994), including orchard orioles (Enstrom, 1993); 2) sexual
selection for status signaling through male-male aggres-
sive competition, which has never seriously been doubted,
although the number of careful studies that document it is
surprisingly small (e.g., Peek, 1972; Roskraft and Rohwer,
1987; Sorenson and Derrickson, 1994); and 3) the specia-
tion process itself, which has also been supported by a few
studies (Sibley, 1957), although there is really only one well-
documented case of reproductive character displacement
(Saetre et al., 1997). Predator avoidance and other processes
may also play a role (Dumbacher et al., 1992; Götmark, 1992).
Studies are needed that consider the continuum of
mate choice decisions, from relative choices between oth-
erwise acceptable conspecifics to threshold choices against
unacceptable conspecifics, and choices that include indi-
viduals of other populations, races, or species (see Ryan,
1990). All such studies should be careful to emphasize indi-
vidual fitness; there are cases when choosing to mate with
heterospecifics may make the best of a bad situation (e.g.,
Nuechterlein and Buitron, 1998; Veen et al., 2001), or may
actually lead to increased offspring fitness (Grant and Grant,
1996). Ultimately it will be valuable to know for at least some
individual species, what roles female choice, male-male
aggression, species recognition, and other processes have
had in driving and maintaining the evolution of plumage
and other signals. Similarly, it will be helpful to know the
percentage of birds in which female choice, male-male ag-
gression or species recognition has played the dominant
role, and whether different mechanisms prevail over one
another and in what circumstances. These are ambitious
and long range goals, but now that there is good evidence
for each of the mechanisms, more knowledge of their rela-
tive importance is needed, and of the interactions between
Acknowledgements The US National Science Foundation
provided funding for this research (DEB-0004400). R. C.
Fleischer, R. Greenberg and S. M. Lanyon provided logistical
and financial support for tissue collection. We thank the
faculty and students at Museo de Zoología, UNAM,
Mexico, for assistance in collecting black-backed orioles.
Many other museums, institutions and individuals have
provided tissue loans for our oriole research projects. Jeff
Peters and Chris Hofmann provided helpful comments on
the manuscript. We thank Ian Owens and Trevor Price for
inviting us to participate in this symposium.
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