Tanager Song and Plumage Color

Mason, N. A., Shultz, A. J., and K. J. Burns. 2014. Elaborate visual and acoustic signals evolve independently in a large, phenotypically diverse radiation of songbirds. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Biological Sciences 281 1788 20140967.  pdf

We recently published a paper looking at plumage and song evolution in tanagers. This paper was a major part of Nick Mason’s MS thesis and included Allison Shultz’s plumage data from her MS thesis. Both traits were examined in the context of the large tanager phylogeny we have built in the lab.  In the paper, we test the ‘transfer’ hypothesis which proposes that selection can target either elaborate plumage or elaborate song. In other words, birds can evolve either colorful plumage or elaborate songs, but not both simultaneously. We found little support for this hypothesis and the two traits appear unlinked across evolutionary timescales. This study has broader implications for songbirds as a whole, given that tanagers are the largest family of songbirds.

This article was covered in the media, here are a few links:

Scientific American podcast:

Audubon magazine:

Cornell Lab of Ornithology blog post:

Tanager Top 10 lists:

Press release:


The 371 species of tropical tanagers include some of the most spectacularly colorful birds in the world. Five examples include (clockwise from upper left): Golden Tanager, Swallow Tanager, Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager, Red-necked Tanager, Beryl-spangled Tanager. Photo compilation from Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Photos by Peter Wendelken, Frank Shufelt, Keith Bowers, Vivek Tiwari, and Priscilla Burcher.

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