Original Scientific Article

Evolution: Education and Outreach

, Volume 3, Issue 1, pp 47-53

First online:

Diversifying Coevolution between Crossbills and Conifers

  • Craig W. BenkmanAffiliated withDepartment of Zoology and Physiology, Program in Ecology, University of Wyoming Email author 


Coevolution between granivorous crossbills (Loxia spp.) and conifers has been a prominent process in the diversification of crossbills. A striking example occurs in western North America where coevolution between crossbills and Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta latifolia) is ongoing in isolated ranges without the crossbill’s dominant competitor for seeds, the red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). Preferential foraging by crossbills on lodgepole pine cones in the South Hills and Albion Mountains, two small mountain ranges in southern Idaho where red squirrels are absent, has led to the evolution of larger, thicker-scaled cones than in nearby ranges where red squirrels are present. This in turn has favored the evolution of larger-billed crossbills that have diverged from other crossbills in the region. However, such diversifying coevolution, resulting from geographic variation in the distribution of strongly interacting species, is vulnerable to species introductions. For example, the introduction of red squirrels caused the precipitous decline and perhaps extinction of the Newfoundland crossbill and perhaps a crossbill endemic to the Cypress Hills, Canada. In general, species introductions act to reduce the geographic variation in species interactions, which may be critical for the diversification of many taxa.


Crossbills Conifers Coevolution Competition Loxia Tamiasciurus Pinus contorta