Geographic and Temporal Variation of the Male Zebra Finch Distance Call


David Runciman, Department of Zoology, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Victoria, 3086, Australia. E-mail:


Temporal and geographic variation of acoustic signals can provide insights into dispersal patterns, population history and speciation. Vocalizations that are transmitted from one generation to the next are of particular value in this respect because they can reveal patterns of gene flow, effectively behaving as population markers. The male zebra finch Taeniopygia guttata distance call is one such vocalization; sons learn their father's distance call in the first 40 d of life and it is individually stereotyped thereafter. We investigated geographic variation in the zebra finch by comparing the structure of distance calls recorded from 61 males from six populations across the continent-wide range of the Australian subspecies T. g. castanotis. Intra-population variation was high, in many cases greater than the variation among all males recorded, possibly because of population interchange. However, three of six call variables measured, including the newly discovered modulated element, varied geographically although the pattern of distance call variation did not agree with that of geographic proximity of populations. The proportion of calls with a modulated element increased dramatically over 7 yr in central Australia but there was no change over a similar period of time in south-eastern Australia where no calls contained the element. The findings suggest that interchange among widely separated populations may be commonplace in Australian zebra finches, with the possible exception of those from south-eastern Australia.