Rapid character displacement of different call parameters in closely related treefrogs (Hyla cinerea and H. gratiosa)

  • Noah M. Gordon
  • Madison Z. Ralph
  • Kane D. Stratman
Original Article


When the range of similar species begins to overlap, niche separation may develop to maintain species boundaries. Reproductive traits are often subject to these adjustments, particularly when there is selection against hybrids. Shifts in range overlap can result in call interference, increased hybridization, and reduced mating success. Previous research has shown that these conditions can drive reproductive character displacement (RCD). Consistent with RCD, green tree frogs (Hyla cinerea) call at higher frequencies and perch higher in syntopy with their sister species (barking tree frogs, Hyla gratiosa), relative to allotopy. However, the time needed for these changes to occur and the corresponding effects on H. gratiosa remain unclear. We investigated if RCD is detectable in populations of these two species after 8 years or less of syntopy. We found an elevated high-frequency peak in calls of syntopic H. cinerea, while an increase in call duration was detected in syntopic H. gratiosa. Our results suggest that RCD can occur rapidly, in a manner consistent with the plasticity-first model, and that traits improving signal detection may be the first to respond to the pressures of syntopy and selection against hybrids.

Significance statement

Related species are expected to change their mating signals when breeding together to avoid mating with the wrong species. Green tree frogs change their mating calls when they breed in the same ponds as barking tree frogs, but it remains unclear how fast these changes can take place, or if there are any changes in barking tree frogs. We analyzed calls and perch locations within areas of recent (<8 years) range overlap in ponds where these species breed together and ponds where only one breeds. We found that when the two frogs co-occur, green tree frogs call at higher frequencies and barking tree frogs increase their calling duration. These changes were in the same direction, but diminished relative to ponds where they have lived together for long periods. Our results demonstrate that behavioral changes to avoid hybridization can occur in as few as 8 years.


Reproductive character displacement Anura Communication Range expansion Hybrid avoidance 



We thank Mike Lodato, John MacGregor, and Gerlinde Hobel for discussions of field sites, sympatry, tree frogs, and experimental design; and Cris Hochwender for statistical advice. Comments by two anonymous reviewers substantially improved our manuscript. Mike Lodato and Daniel W. Mikesell provided assistance in the field.

Compliance with ethical standards


Financial support was provided by a grant from the University of Evansville UExplore fund.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. All procedures performed in studies involving animals were in accordance with the ethical standards of, and approved by, the University of Evansville Animal Care and Use Committee, approval no. 2014-01. All data were collected under the KY Dept. of Fish and Wildlife permit no. 52686.

Data availability

The datasets analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Noah M. Gordon
    • 1
  • Madison Z. Ralph
    • 1
  • Kane D. Stratman
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of BiologyUniversity of EvansvilleEvansvilleUSA
  2. 2.Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of WisconsinMilwaukeeUSA

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