For the first time in history, researchers have uncovered a hybrid bird species in the Amazon jungle.
The unique creature is known as the golden-crowned manakin, and it is the offspring of both the snow-capped manakin — known for its crown of snow-white feathers — and the Opal-crowned manakin, which has a similar crown of bright, luminous feathers. The mixing of the two species causes the offspring to have dull, yellow feathers.
“The golden-crowned manakin ended up with an intermediate keratin structure that does a poor job of making either the brilliant white or the reflective iridescence of the parental species,” said senior author Jason Weir, a researcher at the University of Toronto, according to International Business Times.
To make this discovery, a group of researchers from the University of Toronto sequenced a large amount of the bird’s genome, including 16,000 different genetic markers. That revealed that the golden-crowned manakin gets roughly 20 percent of its DNA from the snow-capped manakin and 80 percent from the Opal-crowned manakin.
The team found those differences with an electron microscope, which revealed that the bird’s highly reflective colors are used to help males court females in the dark rainforest. However, the mixing of two different species diluted the colors early on and likely caused the golden-crowned manakin to have white or grey feathers. It only gained golden feathers when the males needed them for attraction.
Researchers also noted that the hybrid species likely first came about when two different species — who split from a common ancestor some 300,000 years ago — first mated 180,000 years ago. Compared to other Amazon birds, most of which diverged from their most recent relatives between 1.5 million and 4 million years ago, the manakin species are quite young.
This is an exciting finding that helps shed light on both manakin and avian evolution. Even with the mixed mating, the only reason the golden-crowned manakin exists is because of geographic isolation that helps it stay away from other species. Further study of that process could help shed insight on genetic anomalies.
“Without geographic isolation, it’s very likely this would never have happened because you don’t see the hybrids evolving as separate species in other areas where both parental species meet,” added Weir, in a statement.
This research is set to appear online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.