The study of ecological convergence, the evolution of similar traits on multiple occasions in response to similar conditions, is a powerful method for developing and testing adaptive hypotheses. However, despite the great attention paid to geographic variation and the foraging ecology of birds, surprisingly few cases of convergent or parallel feeding adaptations have been adequately documented. In this study, we document a biogeographic pattern of parallel bill morphology across 10 sparrow taxa endemic to tidal marshes. All North American tidal marsh sparrows display parallel differentiation from close relatives in other habitats, suggesting that selection on bill morphology is strong. Relative to their body mass, tidal marsh sparrows have longer, thinner bills than their non-tidal marsh counterparts, which is likely an adaptation for consuming more invertebrates and fewer seeds, as well as for probing in sediment crevices to capture prey. Published data on tidal marsh food resources and diet of the relevant taxa support this hypothesis. This morphological differentiation is most pronounced between sister taxa with the greatest estimated divergence times, but is found even in taxa that show little or no structure in molecular genetic markers. We, therefore, speculate that tidal marsh ecosystems are likely settings for ecological speciation.
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Vol. 59 • No. 7