(CNN) When researchers found a hummingbird with bright golden feathers on its throat in Peru’s Cordillera Azul National Park, they thought it was a newly discovered species.
The park, part of the outer ridges of the eastern slopes of the Andes, is a secluded place – the perfect place to find genetically distinct species.
“I looked at the bird and said to myself, This thing is unlike anything else. My first thought was, it was a new species,” John Bates, curator of birds at the Field Museum in Chicago, said in a statement.
After completing their field work in Peru and back To the Field Museum to analyze the bird’s DNA, researchers made a surprising discovery.
The bird has not been documented before, but it was a hybrid that resulted from two species of related hummingbird: the pink-throated glossy hummingbird, Heliodoxa gularis, and the Rufus glossy hummingbird, Heliodoxa branickii.
Both types of hummingbirds are known to have distinctly pink feathers on their throats, which has led researchers to wonder how the pink color is mixed in with the golden plumage.
“We thought it would be genetically distinctive, but it does match Heliodoxa branicei in some signs, which is one of those pink-throated hummingbirds from that general area of Peru,” Bates said.
Initial DNA analysis focused on mitochondrial DNA, which is passed on from the maternal side, and matched Heliodoxa branickii.
The researchers then looked at nuclear DNA, the result of genetic contributions from both parents of the bird, revealing aspects of Heliodoxa branicei and Heliodoxa gularis.
However, the golden-throated hummingbird was not the result of a genetic split. One of its ancestors was likely a mixture of the two species, while later generations appear to have been associated with branickii hummingbirds.
A detailed study of the findings was published Wednesday in the journal Royal Society for Open Science.
Since it is rare for hummingbirds of the same species to have completely different throat feathers, Dive deeper into the mystery of golden feathers on hybrids.
study co-author Chad Eliason, senior research scientist at the Field Museum, said in a statement. “This hybrid is a mixture of two complex feather characteristics of the two parent species.”
The primary color of the feathers comes from pigment, such as melanin, but the cell structure of the feathers and the manner Light reflects off the feathers structural colour. It is this structural coloration that results in the iridescent nature of a hummingbird’s plumage.
The research team studied the bird’s throat feathers using an electron microscope to measure how light bounces off the feathers to create different colours.
“There’s more than one way to make an iridescent purple,” Ellison said. “Each parent species has its own way of making purple, which, I think, is why you get such a non-linear or surprising result when you mix these two recipes together to produce a plumage color.”
The discovery suggests that hybrids may contribute to the rainbow of colors seen in different hummingbirds.
“Based on the speed of color evolution seen in hummingbirds,” Eliasson said, “we calculated that it would take 6 (million to) 10 million years for this drastic shift in pink and gold to evolve in a single species.
Bates said the researchers hope their work will inspire others to keep an eye on potential hummingbird hybrids.
“New tools such as genetic data open up a new understanding of how these events occur across geography and time,” Bates said. “One of the questions we want to consider in the region in Peru where this study was conducted is how this complex mountainside landscape has evolved over time and what role these changes have played in the diversification of birds and other organisms.”
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