Evolution of Plumage Patterns in a Pattern Morphospace: A Phylogenetic Analysis of Melanerpine Woodpeckers

Monica L. Carlson, Mary Caswell Stoddard

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Plumage patterns of melanerpine (Melanerpes-Sphyrapicus) woodpeckers are strikingly diverse. Understanding the evolution and function of this diversity is challenging because of the difficulty of quantifying plumage patterns. We use a three-dimensional space to characterize the evolution of melanerpine achromatic plumage patterns. The axes of the space are three pattern features (spatial frequency, orientation, and contrast) quantified using two-dimensional fast Fourier transformation of museum specimen images. Mapping plumage in pattern space reveals differences in how species and subclades occupy the space. To quantify these differences, we derive two new measures of pattern: pattern diversity (diversity across plumage patches within a species) and pattern uniqueness (divergence of patterns from those of other species). We estimate that the melanerpine ancestor had mottled plumage and find that pattern traits across patches and subclades evolve at different rates. We also find that smaller species are more likely to display horizontal face patterning. We promote pattern spaces as powerful tools for investigating animal pattern evolution.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)55-72
Number of pages18
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2024

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


  • Fourier analysis
  • Melanerpes
  • animal patterns
  • melanerpine woodpecker
  • pattern morphospace
  • plumage pattern evolution


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