Background Evolutionary biology endeavours to explain biological diversity, and as such it is critical to develop an understanding of the adaptive and functional significance of trait variation. Spermatozoa exhibit remarkable levels of morphological diversification. However, our understanding of the evolutionary causes and functional significance of this variation is limited, especially at the intraspecific level. Methods We quantified variation in sperm morphology and performance between two subspecies of Long-tailed Finch (Poephila acuticauda acuticauda and P. a. hecki), a small grassfinch found in tropical northern Australia. Despite a zone of secondary contact, these subspecies are maintained as two distinct forms: P. a. acuticauda occurs in the western part of the species’ range and has a yellow bill, while P. a. hecki exhibits a red bill and is found in the eastern part of the range. Results We found small, but significant differences in sperm size between these subspecies (P. a. acuticauda had longer and narrower sperm than P. a. hecki), which was surprising given the recent evolutionary origins of these two taxa (i.e. 0.3 million years ago). Additionally, both subspecies exhibited high values of between- and within-male variation in sperm morphology, though in the case of sperm midpiece length this variation was significantly lower in P. a. acuticauda relative to P. a. hecki. Conclusions We suggest these observed differences in sperm morphology are the result of genetic drift and reflect historical processes associated with divergence between the eastern and western populations of these two subspecies. Finally, we discuss the potential implications of our findings for the process of population divergence and reproductive isolation.
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