One of the most fundamental goals of modern biology is to achieve a deep understanding of the origin and maintenance of biodiversity. It has been observed that in some mixed-species animal societies, there appears to be a drive towards some degree of phenotypic trait matching, such as similar coloration or patterning. Here we build on these observations and hypothesize that selection in mixed-species animal societies, such as mixed-species bird flocks, may drive diversification, potentially leading to speciation. We review evidence for possible convergent evolution and even outright mimicry in flocks from southwestern China, where we have observed several cases in which species and subspecies differ from their closest relatives in traits that match particular flock types. However, understanding whether this is phenotypic matching driven by convergence, and whether this divergence has promoted biodiversity, requires testing multiple facets of this hypothesis. We propose a series of steps that can be used to tease apart alternative hypotheses to build our understanding of the potential role of convergence in diversification in participants of mixed-species societies. Even if our social convergence/divergence hypothesis is not supported, the testing at each step should help highlight alternative processes that may affect mixed-species flocks, trait evolution and possible convergence. This article is part of the theme issue 'Mixed-species groups and aggregations: shaping ecological and behavioural patterns and processes'.
Keywords: convergent evolution; incomplete-lineage sorting; mimicry; mixed-species flocks; phenotypic matching; speciation.