There are about 30 species of vibrantly colored Amazon parrots that soar through the skies of Mexico, the Caribbean and South America. But a new fluffy family member may soon be added to the Amazona genus. As Ian Sample reports for the Guardian, a team of researchers believes they have discovered a never-before-seen species of the parrot on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.
Miguel Gómez Garza, an ornithologist at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, first spotted the birds in 2014. He was conducting research in the Yucatán when he heard an unusual call coming from the trees. Garza observed a group of parrots that resembled the Amazon, but the noise they were making was short, sharp and hawk-like—very different from the cries of other parrots in the area.
“I could not believe it,” Garza told Sample. “The different noise belonged to a different parrot.”
The newly discovered bird also displayed unique markings, which are described in a study published recently in the journal PeerJ. Fiery red plumage sprouts from the parrot’s forehead. Its crown is green and its wing feathers are bright blue, leading Garza and a team of researchers to call the parrot the “Blue-winged Amazon.” More formally, the parrot has been dubbed Amazona gomezgarzai in Garza’s honor.
According to a press release, the new parrot lives in flocks of less than 12 individuals. Mated pairs tend to stay together with their offspring, and are discernible within the larger group. The Blue-winged Amazon likes to munch on fruit, flowers and seeds, and it is possible that the parrot mimics the cry of a hawk to scare other birds away from tasty snacks, Sample reports.
To study the parrots in close proximity, Garza received permission from Mexican authorities to capture a male and female member of the species. With the help of Tony Silva, an independent bird researcher in Florida, and Pawel Mackiewicz, a geneticist at the University of Wroclaw in Poland, he measured the birds and took samples of mitochondrial DNA—genetic material that is passed from mother to child. The tests suggest that the new species is relatively young, evolving from the white-fronted Amazona albifrons about 120,000 years ago.
But not all experts are convinced the bird is a new species. John Bates, an associate curator at the Field Museum in Chicago, tells Traci Watson for National Geographic that the genes studied by the researchers are “very weak” for species identification.
“I'd personally like to see more genetic work before making any conclusions about this,” he tells Watson. Responding to this criticism, Mackiewicz says that the team looked at the same genes as other parrot studies.
If the Blue-winged Amazon is in fact a distinct species, it is also a rare one. Researchers estimate that only 100 blue-winged Amazons exist in the wild, and they fear that habitat destruction and the illegal pet trade threaten the birds’ survival. Consequently, the authors of the study argue, implementing a conservation program for this unique parrot should be a top priority.