Does song reflect age and viability? A comparison between two populations of the great reed warbler Acrocephalus arundinaceus
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Song complexity is often regarded as a sexually selected trait that reflects the overall quality of a male. In many passerine species, old males possess larger song repertoires than younger males. This may be either because individual males improve their performance as they get older (longitudinal increase) or because poor singers have reduced viability and, hence, are underrepresented in old age classes (cross-sectional increase). We studied the age dependence of repertoire size and other song traits in a German and a Swedish great reed warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus) population. We found marked differences between longitudinal and cross-sectional approaches, as well as between the two study populations. In the German population, we found that syllable switching, a measure of immediate versatility and strophe length, increased with age in a cross-sectional analysis. This was not because birds improved with age (longitudinally) but because syllable switching was positively correlated with male longevity. However, in Sweden, syllable switching seemed to be unrelated to age and longevity. In the Swedish population, individual males increased their repertoire size as they got older (longitudinal increase), but this did not happen in the German population. Hence, two populations, even when belonging to the same subspecies, may differ in whether or not they show delayed song maturation.