The Golden-crowned manakin is a striking and elusive little bird that dwells in a small stretch of the Amazon forest. It was discovered in 1957 and not spotted again until 2002. Now, new research has revealed that the Golden-crowned manakin may be even more unique than scientists realized. As Emily Chung reports for the CBC, a team of researchers at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, have found that the Golden-crowned manakin is a new species that arose from the hybridization of two different living species, making it the first-known hybrid bird species—hybird, if you will—to be found in the Amazon rainforest.
Since the Golden-crowned manakin was discovered, experts have suspected that it might be a hybrid of two other, closely related birds: the Snow-capped manakin and the Opal-crowned manakin, which boast white and blue crown feathers, respectively. But the crown feathers of the Golden-crowned manakin are, as you might expect, yellow. And this left scientists confused.
"If it represented hybrids, why would it be yellow?” asks Jason Weir, an associate professor at the University of Toronto, Scarborough’s Department of Biological Sciences, in an interview with Chung. “It's so different from the parent species."
To find out, Weir and a team of experts made two field trips to the Amazon (braving jaguars, a huge anaconda and hundreds of ticks while they were there) to collect feathers and other genetic samples from the three birds. According to a University of Toronto press release, researchers then sequenced “a large portion” of the Golden-crowned manakin’s genome, including 16,000 different genetic markers. The results of their analysis, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed that about 20 percent of the Golden-crowned manakin’s genome came from the Snow-capped manakin, and 80 percent came from the Opal-crowned manakin.
The data also indicated that the two parent species first mated around 180,000 years ago. At some point during a past ice age, the Golden-crowned manakin appears to have become geographically isolated from its parent species, likely due to the formation of large rivers that created a natural barrier from the hybrid and its parental species. The new hybrids then began to breed among themselves, isolating their genes and evolving into their own species, as Kristin Hugo explains in Newsweek.
"While hybrid plant species are very common, hybrid species among vertebrates are exceedingly rare," Weir says in the University of Toronto press release. Birds have been known to occasionally mate with other avian species, but hybrid offspring usually die young or struggle to attract mates in adulthood.
The Golden-crowned manakin may have run into such troubles during its evolutionary trajectory—which would in turn explain why it boasts unique, yellow feathers. When scientists examined the bird’s feathers under a microscope, they found a mix of keratin structures that can be seen in the feathers of the bird’s parental species. But the Golden-crowned manakin’s yellow feathers are much duller than its parent species’ reflective crowns, which help males attract mates amid the dark enclaves of the rainforest.
“The Golden-crowned manakin likely had duller white or gray feathers early on in its existence as a result of its keratin structure, but eventually evolved yellow feathers as an alternative way to attract females,” the press release states. “The end result is a uniquely colored species.”
While the Golden-crowned manakin may very well be a rare example of a hybrid species that has survived and thrived, Weir tells Chung of the CBC that advances in genomic analysis could help scientists discover more products of hybridization in the animal kingdom. "It's possible that we're going to find that they're much more common than we realized," he says.