Monarch flycatchers: Catching the moment one bird species becomes two

Plumage variations of the monarch flycatcher. (Photo/Courtesy J. Albert Uy)

Plumage variations of the monarch flycatcher. (Photo/Courtesy J. Albert Uy)

How do you measure the instant one species becomes two? Well, in the Solomon Islands, biologist J. Albert Uy is trying to pick a fight with monarch flycatchers to find the answer. The fight’s tipping point has to do with a bunch of feathers, a change in plumage colors that is allowing scientists to capture a snapshot of evolution in action.

A territorial flycatcher (Monarcha castaneiventris castaneiventris) aggressively responding to a taxidermy mount during our mount presentation experiment. We used mount presentation and song playback experiments to test if divergent plumage color and song are used in species recognition between sister taxa (described in Uy et al. 2009). (Photo/Courtesy J. Albert Uy)

A territorial flycatcher (Monarcha castaneiventris castaneiventris) aggressively responding to a taxidermy mount during our mount presentation experiment. (Photo/Courtesy J. Albert Uy)

Flycatcher males are territorial and will launch an avian smackdown towards perceived rivals trespassing on their turf. But a flip of a single gene is turning the monarch flycatcher into a bird of a different color, and in the process changing the social dynamics of rival birds.

It seems that though they are technically still the same species, the black-feathered flycatcher didn’t get the memo about their chestnut-bellied kin, and vice versa. Uy tested this by invading flycatcher territory with dummy birds. What he’s found is that the two don’t see each other as rivals, and are therefore probably more interested in mating with their like-feathered counterparts.

At least in the case of the monarch flycatcher, this single gene and spot of color heralds the birth of an entire new species.

J. Albert Uy (Photo/ C. Low, courtesy J. Albert Uy)

J. Albert Uy (Photo/ C. Low, courtesy J. Albert Uy)

We often hear about species being lost, but rarely do we learn of one being created. Uy’s work provides a glimpse of the “fork in the evolutionary road” as it happens in real-time, and what that could mean for our understanding of bird life.

Uy’s work appears in the current edition of American Naturalist, and you can read more about monarch flycatchers in the 2005 New York Times article, “In Give and Take of Evolution, a Surprising Contribution from Islands.”

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