Habitat structure drives the evolution of aerial displays in birds

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John Endler's sensory drive hypothesis posits that physical properties of the environment may shape signalling traits by determining how effective they are in communicating. Evidence abounds of signalling environment driving selection on colours and vocalizations, yet little is known about its influence on visual signals produced via body movements (i.e., gestural displays).Here, we aimed to perform the most taxonomically comprehensive assessment of sensory drive by testing the hypothesis that habitat structure drives the evolution of aerial sexual displays in passerine birds (order Passeriformes). We base this hypothesis on physical properties of habitats that should allow aerial displays to transmit more broadly in open habitats.To test the hypothesis, we performed Bayesian phylogenetic comparative analyses using species-level phylogenetic trees and a dataset of 469 species from across the Americas.We found that evolutionary gain of aerial displays is on average six times more frequent in open-habitat passerines than in forest ones.The influence of habitat structure on the evolution of aerial sexual displays attests to the importance of sensory drive as a deterministic evolutionary force within sexual selection, as opposed to models that assume a purely arbitrary direction of sexual trait evolution.

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