Seasonal migration patterns and the maintenance of evolutionary diversity in a cryptic bird radiation

Qindong Tang, Reto Burri, Yang Liu, Alexander Suh, Sundev Gombobaatar, Gerald Heckel, Manuel Schweizer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Morphological differentiation associated with evolutionary diversification is often explained with adaptive benefits but the processes and mechanisms maintaining cryptic diversity are still poorly understood. Using genome-wide data, we show here that the pale sand martin Riparia diluta in Central and East Asia consists of three genetically deeply differentiated lineages which vary only gradually in morphology but broadly reflect traditional taxonomy. We detected no signs of gene flow along the eastern edge of the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau between lowland south-eastern Chinese R. d. fohkienensis and high-altitude R. d. tibetana. Largely different breeding and migration timing between these low and high altitude populations as indicated by phenology data suggests that allochrony might act as prezygotic isolation mechanism in the area where their ranges abut. Mongolian populations of R. d. tibetana, however, displayed signs of limited mixed ancestries with Central Asian R. d. diluta. Their ranges meet in the area of a well-known avian migratory divide, where western lineages take a western migration route around the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau to winter quarters in South Asia, and eastern lineages take an eastern route to Southeast Asia. This might also be the case between western R. d. diluta and eastern R. d. tibetana as indicated by differing wintering grounds. We hypothesize that hybrids might have nonoptimal intermediate migration routes and selection against them might restrict gene flow. Although further potential isolation mechanisms might exist in the pale sand martin, our study points towards contrasting migration behaviour as an important factor in maintaining evolutionary diversity under morphological stasis.

Original languageEnglish
JournalMolecular Ecology
Early online date21 Oct 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 21 Oct 2021


  • Riparia diluta
  • Sand martin
  • allochrony
  • cryptic diversification
  • phylogeography
  • population genomics

Cite this