Linking Ecological Specialization to Its Macroevolutionary Consequences: An Example with Passerine Nest Type

Rosana Zenil-Ferguson, Jay P. Mcentee, J. Gordon Burleigh, Renee A. Duckworth

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


A long-standing hypothesis in evolutionary biology is that the evolution of resource specialization can lead to an evolutionary dead end, where specialists have low diversification rates and limited ability to evolve into generalists. In recent years, advances in comparative methods investigating trait-based differences associated with diversification have enabled more robust tests of this idea and have found mixed support. We test the evolutionary dead end hypothesis by estimating net diversification rate differences associated with nest-type specialization among 3224 species of passerine birds. In particular, we test whether the adoption of hole-nesting, a nest-type specialization that decreases predation, results in reduced diversification rates relative to nesting outside of holes. Further, we examine whether evolutionary transitions to the specialist hole-nesting state have been more frequent than transitions out of hole-nesting. Using diversification models that accounted for background rate heterogeneity and different extinction rate scenarios, we found that hole-nesting specialization was not associated with diversification rate differences. Furthermore, contrary to the assumption that specialists rarely evolve into generalists, we found that transitions out of hole-nesting occur more frequently than transitions into hole-nesting. These results suggest that interspecific competition may limit adoption of hole-nesting, but that such competition does not result in limited diversification of hole-nesters. In conjunction with other recent studies using robust comparative methods, our results add to growing evidence that evolutionary dead ends are not a typical outcome of resource specialization.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)294-306
Number of pages13
JournalSystematic biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 1 2023


  • Cavity nesting
  • diversification
  • hidden-state models
  • passerines
  • resource specialization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics

Cite this