Concordance of genetic and phenotypic characters across a sapsucker hybrid zone

Sampath S. Seneviratne, David P.L. Toews, Alan Brelsford, Darren E. Irwin

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23 Scopus citations


Hybridization has presented a challenge for taxonomists and conservation biologists, since hybridizing forms could be stable evolutionary entities or ephemeral forms that are blending together. However, hybrid zones also provide a unique opportunity for evolutionary biologists who study the interaction between gene flow and reproductive isolation in speciation. Three forms of woodpeckers (sapsuckers; genus Sphyrapicus) in North America that are mostly geographically separated but hybridize with each other where they come into contact present a remarkable system for the study of hybridization. We provide the first comprehensive analysis of phenotypic and genetic variation across a hybrid zone between two of these forms, the red-breasted Sphyrapicus ruber and yellow-bellied S. varius sapsuckers. The objective was to infer whether selection maintains the differences between forms. Our analysis of eight morphometric and 20 plumage traits, and two molecular markers showed clear differences between the forms and roughly concordant clinal variation across a narrow hybrid zone. Thirty percent of sampled birds in the hybrid zone had mixed west/east genotypes at the genetic markers examined. The center of the genetic cline was located 20 km west of the crest of the Rocky Mountains. The width of the zone was 122 km, narrower than would be expected under neutral blending given reasonable estimates of the age of the zone and individual dispersal distances. Heterozygote deficit and cytonuclear disequilibrium at the centre of the hybrid zone suggested nonrandom mating or limited hybridization. Given these patterns and lack of evidence for habitat segregation we conclude that this hybrid zone is maintained by selection, most likely in the form of hybrid inferiority. This study provides an illustrative example of extensive hybridization between stable entities, providing additional evidence against the historical practice of treating hybridizing forms as members of the same species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)119-130
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Avian Biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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