Life History Divergence & Tidal Salt Marsh Adaptations of the Coastal Plain Swamp Sparrow


TR Number



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


Virginia Tech


Adaptation to local environments via natural selection is a powerful mechanism for population divergence and likely one of the primary causes of speciation. To understand how specific habitats shape local adaptation, it is helpful to study closely-related populations from widely differing ecosystems that have not had sufficient time to diverge by genetic drift. Throughout the following chapters I examine the distribution of morphological, behavioral, and reproductive phenotypes within and between two subspecies of the swamp sparrow. These two populations, the tidal salt marsh endemic Melospiza georgiana nigrescens and the nominant inland subspecies, M. g. georgiana were incompletely isolated from each other following the retreat of the Wisconsin glaciation. Since that time the increased nest predation, temperature, season length, salinity and tidal flow of the coastal marshes relative to inland wetlands has resulted in a number of adaptations among coastal sparrows due to natural selection, sexual selection, and phenotypic plasticity. Specifically I examine the habitat preferences of the coastal plain swamp sparrow, the difference in clutch size between the two subspecies, the rates of extrapair fertilization relative to male quality, the ecosystem-specific interactions between natural and sexual selection on plumage badges, and the role of conspecific attraction in nest placement. The environmental differences of the tidal salt marsh have played strong roles in the local adaptation and divergence of coastal plain swamp sparrows from their freshwater ancestors. Many of these divergent mechanisms may be similar among other tidal marsh endemics, although some (especially those related to sexual selection) may be specific to the swamp sparrow. In general, however, we see that the added environmental challenges of tidal ecosystems strongly alter selection regimes on a terrestrial vertebrate inhabiting this dynamic ecotone. The swamp sparrow system can further increase our understanding of how the interplay between environmental resources, sexual selection, and natural selection affects the local adaptations leading to evolutionary divergence.



Melospiza georgiana, optimal habitat, clutch size, extrapair fertilization, sexual selection, conspecific attraction