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Lepidothrix vilasboasi

Amazonian bird originated as a hybrid of two other species

Discovered in 1957 near the headwaters of the Cururu river (a tributary of the Tapajós river in western Pará), the golden-crowned manakin (Lepidothrix vilasboasi) is a mysterious bird. Measuring a little under 10 centimeters, the species was first described by Helmut Sick, a German ornithologist who later became a naturalized Brazilian. It was not sighted again for more than 40 years, until it was finally spotted in the wild again in 2002. The green and yellow bird is similar to two other species found in the surrounding area: the snow-capped manakin (Lepidothrix nattereri) and the opal-crowned manakin (Lepidothrix iris). A study of the genetic material of these three species, conducted by researchers from Canada, Brazil, and Belgium, confirmed the suspicion that the golden-crowned manakin originated as a natural hybrid: 20% of its genome comes from the snow-capped manakin, and 80% from the opal-crowned manakin (PNAS, December 26). According to the paper, snow-capped and opal-crowned manakins crossbred about 180,000 years ago, resulting in a hybrid species. For some reason, possibly geographical isolation, the golden-crowned manakins now prefer to mate with other birds of their hybrid species rather than either of the parent species. “Over time, the yellow plume appeared and became a fixed characteristic of the species,” comments ornithologist Alexandre Aleixo, from the Emílio Goeldi Paraense Museum, who was one of the authors of the study. “Hybrid animals do not usually prosper—the mule, for example, is sterile—and over time, the genomic hybridization disappears. But with L. vilasboasi, the exact opposite has occurred.” The golden-crowned manakin is the first bird species from the Amazon proven to be a hybrid, and the fourth worldwide.