Several empirical studies suggest that sexually selected characters, including bird plumage, may evolve rapidly and show high levels of convergence and other forms of homoplasy. However, the processes that might generate such convergence have not been explored theoretically. Furthermore, no studies have rigorously addressed this issue using a robust phylogeny and a large number of signal characters. We scored the appearance of 44 adult male plumage characters that varied across New World orioles (Icterus). We mapped the plumage characters onto a molecular phylogeny based on two mitochondrial genes. Reconstructing the evolution of these characters revealed evidence of convergence or reversal in 42 of the 44 plumage characters. No plumage character states are restricted to any groups of species higher than superspecies in the oriole phylogeny. The high frequency of convergence and reversal is reflected in the low overall retention index (RI = 0.66) and the low overall consistency index (CI = 0.28). We found similar results when we mapped plumage changes onto a total evidence tree. Our findings reveal that plumage patterns and colors are highly labile between species of orioles, but highly conserved within the oriole genus. Furthermore, there are at least two overall plumage types that have convergently evolved repeatedly in the three oriole clades. This overall convergence leads to significant conflict between the molecular and plumage data. It is not clear what evolutionary processes lead to this homoplasy in individual characters or convergence in overall pattern. However, evolutionary constraints such as developmental limitations and genetic correlations between characters are likely to play a role. Our results are consistent with the belief that avian plumage and other sexually selected characters may evolve rapidly and may exhibit high homoplasy. The overall convergence in oriole plumage patterns is an interesting evolutionary phenomenon, but it cautions against heavy reliance on plumage characters for constructing phylogenies.
Editor: S. Edwards