Date of this Version
Evolution Letters 2-4: 417–426
Vocal learning is an important behavior in oscines (songbirds). Some songbird species learn heterospecific sounds as well as conspecific vocalizations. The emergence of vocal mimicry is necessarily tied to the evolution of vocal learning, as mimicry requires the ability to acquire sounds through learning. As such, tracking the evolutionary origins of vocal mimicry may provide insights into the causes of variation in song learning programs among songbirds. We compiled a database of known vocal mimics that comprised 339 species from 43 families. We then traced the evolutionary history of vocal mimicry across the avian phylogeny using ancestral trait reconstruction on a dataset of oscine passerines for which vocalizations have been described. We found that the common ancestor to oscines was unlikely to mimic sounds, suggesting that song learning evolved with mechanisms to constrain learning to conspecific models. Mimicry then evolved repeatedly within the songbird clade, either through relaxation of constraints on conspecific learning or through selection for active vocal mimicry. Vocal mimicry is likely ancestral in only a handful of clades, and we detect many instances of independent origins of mimicry. Our analysis underscores the liability of vocal mimicry in songbirds, and highlights the evolutionary flexibility of song learning mechanisms.