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Data from: Three decades of cultural evolution in Savannah sparrow songs

Cite this dataset

Williams, Heather et al. (2013). Data from: Three decades of cultural evolution in Savannah sparrow songs [Dataset]. Dryad.


Cultural evolution can result in changes in the prevalence not only of different learned song types within bird populations but also of different segments within the song. Between 1980 and 2011, we examined changes within different segments of the single songs of male Savannah sparrows, Passerculus sandwichiensis, in an island population. Introductory notes did not change. The buzz segment showed similar stability; although a rare low-frequency variant appeared and then disappeared, the buzz segments from 1980 and 2011 were essentially identical. The middle segment, made up of discrete notes assembled into several types, was variable. However, the form of the middle segment did not affect fitness and may serve to denote individual identity. The terminal trill decreased steadily in frequency and duration over three decades. Longer trills were associated with lower reproductive success, suggesting that trill duration was under sexual selection. The notes sung between introductory notes were also associated with reproductive success. A high cluster sung in 1980–1982 disappeared altogether by 2011, and was gradually replaced by click trains, which were associated with greater reproductive success. During the final decade of the study, more clicks were added to click trains. Longer click trains, which may require vocal virtuosity and so indicate male quality, were also associated with greater reproductive success. Both trill duration and the number of clicks increased in variance during the three-decade span of the study. We suggest that such increases in variance might be a signature of directional cultural selection. Within the Savannah sparrow’s relatively short and simple learned song, cultural evolution appears to be mediated by different mechanisms for different song segments, perhaps because the segments convey different information.

Usage notes


New Brunswick
66 45' West
Kent Island
44 35' North