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20 January 2021 Cryptic speciation in the Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus)
Scott F. Lovell, M. Ross Lein, Sean M. Rogers
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Eastern (Vireo gilvus gilvus) and western (V. g. swainsoni) forms of the Warbling Vireo have essentially allopatric breeding ranges across north-central North America, but come into contact in central Alberta, Canada. In 1986, Jon Barlow presented preliminary morphological and song evidence suggesting that the Warbling Vireo complex might comprise more than one valid species. However, to date, Barlow's suggestion is supported by only limited DNA evidence, demonstration of molt and migration differences between the taxa, and anecdotal accounts of differences in song, morphology, plumage, and ecology. We analyzed variation in both mitochondrial and nuclear DNA in birds from Alberta and surrounding areas to determine the levels of genetic differentiation and hybridization occurring in the contact zone, and whether the two taxa warrant recognition as separate biological species. Our analyses reveal that Warbling Vireos in Alberta and the surrounding areas are separated into two well-defined, genetically differentiated, and monophyletic clades corresponding to previously recognized taxonomic groups. The two taxa come into contact in a narrow (∼85 km) zone in Barrhead County, northwest of Edmonton, Alberta. They show evidence of limited hybridization. The distinct genetic differences are maintained in the contact zone, where individuals of the two taxa may occupy neighboring territories. Differences in spring arrival dates, molt schedules, and migration routes indicate that a migratory divide may play an important role in reproductive isolation. We suggest that the two taxa are distinct cryptic species: an eastern form, Vireo gilvus, and a western form, Vireo swainsoni.


  • Two subspecies of Warbling Vireo meet in a narrow contact zone in central Alberta, Canada.

  • Analysis of mitochondrial and nuclear DNA found significant genetic differentiation between the two taxa, suggesting a divergence in the early Pleistocene.

  • Hybrids between the two taxa were uncommon in the contact zone.

  • These findings suggest that the two taxa are reproductively isolated and, therefore, should be recognized as “good” biological species.

Copyright © American Ornithological Society 2021. All rights reserved. For permissions, e-mail:
Scott F. Lovell, M. Ross Lein, and Sean M. Rogers "Cryptic speciation in the Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus)," Ornithology 138(1), 1-16, (20 January 2021).
Received: 20 April 2020; Accepted: 8 October 2020; Published: 20 January 2021

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