Local adaptation is often implicated as a driver of speciation and diversity, but measuring local variation within a species can be difficult. Many taxa endemic to salt marshes exhibit a phenotypic trait called salt marsh melanism, in which salt marsh endemics have a darker or grayer integument than their freshwater congeners. The repeated occurrence of salt marsh melanism across distantly related taxa in similar environments suggests a role for local selection in maintaining this trait. We quantitatively explored variation in plumage characteristics for four subspecies of the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) in the San Francisco Bay area. These subspecies are restricted to habitats of varying salinity and climate, and are considered a classic example of ecologically based variation on a local scale. To analyze plumage color, we employed a digital photographic technique which was quantitative, able to deal with pattern variation, and independent of a particular visual system. Although no single plumage measure distinguished among all four subspecies, combining the measures allowed reliable assignment of most specimens. Using a discriminant analysis with five measures of plumage color, we were able to classify 75% of specimens to the correct subspecies, well above the 25% correct classification expected due to chance. The three subspecies inhabiting more saline environments (M. m. pusillula, M. m. samuelis, and M. m. maxillaris) were either darker (lower luminance) or grayer (lower red dominance) than the inland subspecies M. m. gouldii, supporting the pattern of salt marsh melanism observed in other taxa.
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Vol. 132 • No. 1