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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The evolution of contact calls in isolated and overlapping populations of two white-eye congeners in East Africa (Aves, Zosterops)

Martin Husemann12, Werner Ulrich3 and Jan Christian Habel1*

Author Affiliations

1 Terrestrial Ecology Research Group, Department of Ecology and Ecosystem Management, Technische Universität München, Hans-Carl-von-Carlowitz-Platz 2, D-85354 Freising-Weihenstephan, Germany

2 Institute of Biology/Zoology, Department of General Zoology, University of Halle, D-06120 Halle, Germany

3 Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, Chair of Ecology and Biogeography, Pl-87-100 Toruń, Poland

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2014, 14:115  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-14-115

Published: 2 June 2014



Closely related species often occur in geographic isolation, yet sometimes form contact zones with the potential to hybridize. Pre-zygotic barriers may prevent cross breeding in such contact zones. In East Africa, White-eye birds have evolved into various species, inhabiting different habitat types. Zosterops poliogaster is found in cool and moist cloud forests at higher elevations, whereas Z. abyssinicus is distributed across the dry and hot lowland savannahs. In most areas, these two species occur allopatrically, but in the contact zone where the mountain meets the savannah, the distributions of these species sometimes overlap (parapatry), and in a few areas the two taxa occur sympatrically. Acoustic communication is thought to be an important species recognition mechanism in birds and an effective prezygotic barrier for hybridisation. We recorded contact calls of both the lowland and highland species in (i) distinct populations (allopatry), (ii) along contact zones (parapatry), and (iii) in overlapping populations (sympatry) to test for species and population differentiation.


We found significant differences in call characteristics between the highland and lowland species, in addition to call differentiation within species. The highland Z. poliogaster shows a strong call differentiation among local populations, accompanied by comparatively low variability in their contact calls within populations (i.e. a small acoustic space). In contrast, calls of the lowland Z. abyssinicus are not differentiated among local sites but show relatively high variability in calls within single populations. Call patterns in both species show geographic clines in relation to latitude and longitude. Calls from parapatric populations from both species showed greater similarity to the other taxon in comparison to heterospecific populations found in allopatry. However, where the two species occur sympatrically, contact calls of both species are more distinct from each other than in either allopatric or parapatric populations.


The contrasting patterns reflect divergent spatial distributions: the highland Z. poliogaster populations are highly disjunct, while Z. abyssinicus lowland populations are interconnected. Higher similarity in contact calls of heterospecific populations might be due to intermixing. In contrast, sympatric populations show reproductive character displacement which leads to strongly divergent call patterns.

Allopatry; Bioacoustics; Contact calls; Parapatry; Reproductive character displacement; Sympatry; Zosterops abyssinicus; Zosterops poliogaster