Speciation and Hybridization in the Brood Parasitic Indigobirds

Genetic analyses of population structure and speciation in the brood parasitic indigobirds, including extensive fieldwork in Cameroon and Tanzania, have been a primary focus of our work over the last 10 years. Indigobirds are host-specific brood parasites with nestling mouth markings that mimic those of their estrildid finch hosts. Parasitic nestlings also learn host songs and male indigobirds incorporate these songs into their complex repertoires, resulting in assortative mating among parasites reared by the same host species. These behavioral mechanisms provide a plausible mechanism for sympatric speciation by host shift, and our genetic analyses of the evolutionary diversification of indigobird species support this model. At present, we are exploring the history of speciation in indigobirds and the population genetic consequences of this unique social system using large multilocus data sets and analyses based on coalescent theory. Perhaps the best understood case of sympatric speciation in vertebrates, indigobirds also provide an ideal system in which to explore the genetics of adaptive differentiation with ongoing gene flow. This will become a focus of our work as DNA sequencing technology continues to improve.

Male Cameroon Indigobird (Vidua camerunensis) near Banyo

Complex non-mimicry songs in two indigobirds from Tanzania

Selected Indigobird Papers

Additional Brood Parasitism Papers

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Avian Systematics  

We build phylogenetic trees using DNA sequence data to reconstruct the evolutionary history of avian diversification. Our studies have ranged from the species-level to the higher order relationships among the major clades of birds. The waterfowl (ducks, geese, and swans) and various kinds of brood parasitic birds have been the focus of much of this work, but other groups have captured our interest as well. Completed and ongoing studies have generated comprehensive, species-level phylogenies for the cuckoos (half of which are brood parasites), honeyguides (all of which are brood parasites), parasitic finches, estrildid finches (which are the hosts of parasitic finches), wattle-eyes, and waterfowl. Based on our work, we now know that obligate brood parasitism evolved independently seven times among birds; thrice rather than twice in the cuckoos, and once rather than twice in the African finches (the cuckoo finch and the parasitic Vidua finches are each other’s closest relatives). Our phylogenetic trees have also formed the basis for comparative analyses of behavior, morphology, speciation, and molecular evolution in cuckoos and waterfowl.

Avian Systematics Papers

Waterfowl Systematics Papers

Some columbiforms on Columbus in Santo Domingo

Two birds in the hand are worth... a wattle-eye outgroup

Molecular Ecology Methods  

We pride ourselves in thorough data analysis and a concern for data quality. An approach that has led to significant discoveries about molecular evolution and/or information helpful to other researchers collecting molecular data.

Molecular Methods & Data Analysis Papers


Some columbiforms on Columbus in Santo Domingo


Two birds in the hand are worth... a wattle-eye outgroup

In progress... check back soon for more...  
Avian mtDNA primers  
Cytochrome b sequence of Opisthocomus hoazin  

Questions? Please email: msoren@bu.edu