Aim Most studies of avian insular adaptations have focused on oceanic islands, which may not allow characters that are insular adaptations to be teased apart from those that benefit dispersal and colonization. Using birds on continental islands, we investigated characters that evolved in situ in response to insular environments created by late Pleistocene sea level rise.
Location Trinidad and Tobago and continental South America.
Methods We weighed fresh flight muscles and measured museum skeletal specimens of seven species of birds common to the continental islands of Trinidad and Tobago.
Results When corrected for body size, study species exhibited significantly smaller flight muscles, sterna and sternal keels on Tobago than on larger Trinidad and continental South America. Tobago populations were more ‘insular’ in their morphologies than conspecifics on Trinidad or the continent in other ways as well, including having longer bills, longer wings, longer tails and longer legs.
Main conclusions We hypothesize that the longer bills enhance foraging diversity, the longer wings and tails compensate for the smaller pectoral assemblage (allowing for retention of volancy, but with a probable reduction in flight power and speed), and the longer legs expand perching ability. Each of these differences is likely to be related to the lower diversity and fewer potential predators and competitors on Tobago compared with Trinidad. These patterns of smaller flight muscles and larger bills, legs, wings and tails in island birds are not the results of selection for island dispersal and colonization, but probably arose from selection pressures acting on populations already inhabiting these islands.