Morphological response of songbirds to 100 years of landscape change in North America

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Abstract

Major landscape changes caused by humans may create strong selection pressures and induce rapid evolution in natural populations. In the last 100 years, eastern North America has experienced extensive clear-cutting in boreal areas, while afforestation has occurred in most temperate areas. Based on museum specimens, I show that wings of several boreal forest songbirds and temperate songbirds of non-forest habitats have become more pointed over the last 100 years. In contrast, wings of most temperate forest and early-successional boreal forests species have become less pointed over the same period. In contrast to wing shape, the bill length of most species did not change significantly through time. These results are consistent with the “habitat isolation hypothesis,” i.e., songbirds evolved in response to recent changes in the amount of available habitat and associated implications for mobility. Rapid morphological evolution may mitigate, without necessarily preventing, negative consequences of habitat loss caused by humans through direct exploitation or climate change.

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