Bird song often varies geographically within a species; when this geographic variation has distinct boundaries, the shared song types are referred to as song dialects. How dialects are produced and their adaptive significance are longstanding problems in biology, with implications for the role of culture in the evolution and ecology of diverse organisms, including humans. Here we test the hypothesis that song dialect, a culturally transmitted trait, is related to the population genetic structure of mountain white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys oriantha). To address this, we compared microsatellite allele frequencies from 18 sample sites representing eight dialect regions in the Sierra Nevada. Pairwise genetic distances were not significantly correlated with geographic distances either within or between dialects, nor did dialect groups form distinct genetic groups according to neighbor-joining or UPGMA analysis, and most variation in allele frequencies occurred among individuals rather than at higher levels. However, most of the remaining variation was attributable to differences among, rather than within, dialect regions, and this among-dialect component of variance was statistically significant. Moreover, when controlling for the effect of geographic distance, song dissimilarity and genetic distance between site pairs were significantly correlated. Thus, song dialects appear to be associated with reductions in, but not strict barriers to, gene flow among dialect regions.
Corresponding Editor: P. Dunn