Science

Scientists Make Plea to Protect a Rare Hummingbird They Just Discovered

By their estimate, fewer than 750 Blue-throated Hillstars remain in the fragile Ecuadorian Andes.

In the Andes mountains in southwestern Ecuador, the wind carries a hint of cold. Above the treeline, dry shrubs and thorny, flowering Chuquiraga plants stud the land. Having set up mist nets like invisible spiderwebs across these shrubs, a group of scientists lies in wait, hoping to catch an unusual hummingbird.

In April 2017, one of the researchers spotted a hummingbird in the area that had ultramarine throat feathers unlike any other species he had seen. Returning a month later with their special nets, ornithologists finally intercepted one. It was like an iridescent blue gift, Juan Freile, an expert at the Committee for Ecuadorian Records of Ornithology, remembers. (Unknown to his colleagues, that day was Freile’s birthday.) But the real gift was that the netted bird represented a new species of Oreotrochilus—a genus of hummingbirds found only at extremely high elevations across South America.

“I never thought I was going to discover a new species in my lifetime,” Freile says. “It was very exciting.”

Freile and the team collected seven specimens—four males and three females—so they could analyze the birds’ plumage, measurements, calls, and genetic makeup to determine if it was a new species for sure. They dubbed it the Blue-throated Hillstar and published the description in The Auk: Ornithological Advances this week.

But their elation around the regal hummingbird is tempered with concern: Because of its specialized habitat and small population, the Blue-throated Hillstar may already be considered critically endangered, according to IUCN criteria. Researchers estimate that the population consists of 750 birds, all living in an isolated 60-square-mile area in Ecuador.

That area contains the preferred, specialized habitat—arid environments at 11,000 feet above sea level—that makes the new species and its close relatives (in the genus Oreotrochilus) unique among hummingbirds. They have a host of behavioral and physical adaptations that allow them to thrive in the cold, oxygen-poor mountain air. During the day, they conserve energy by minimizing how much they hover; every night, the birds go into a state of hibernation called torpor. They’ve also evolved larger feet than most hummingbirds, allowing them to hop between branches and perch sideways or upside down on the Chuquiraga they nectar on.

This specialization makes the Blue-throated Hillstar vulnerable to human activities—and there are many in the region it lives. Right now, the plant life of the Ecuadorian Andes is heavily grazed by cattle and horses and threatened by forest fires. Areas with gentler slopes are transformed into crops and pastureland, and a large proportion of the hummingbird’s known range is also contracted out for gold and copper mining.

So, the scientists mobilized to describe and name the new species. “We realized a year ago that giving it a name had to be a top priority, because conservation only starts when animals get a name,” Freile says. The researchers are making the case for government land protections that will help connect fragmented patches of the Blue-throated Hillstar’s habitat.

That's particularly critical because the hillstar’s drink of choice limits it to the only areas with Chuquiraga flowers. This, in part, is what may have led to its divergence from other Oreotrochilus species. “On one hand, it’s a situation that promotes divergence into new species,” says Juan Parra, a hummingbird researcher at the Universidad de Antioquia in Colombia, who was not involved in the study. “But it also makes it likely for them to go extinct because none of the populations are very large.”

Indeed, the Blue-throated Hillstar is very similar in measurements, calls, and genetic makeup to the Green-headed Hillstar, found in southern Ecuador and neighboring Peru. But because plumage is an extremely important identifying characteristic among hummingbirds, scientists deemed the Blue-throated Hillstar a new species.

“In this group of birds, throat color acts as a social signal that allows—or deters—reproduction,” says Elisa Bonaccorso, an evolutionary biologist at Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador, who was part of the discovery team. “If a female sees another bird that doesn’t have the same color throat as what she’s used to seeing, he’s not her ideal man, and she won’t reproduce with him.”

One of the next things on Bonaccorso’s plate is to analyze the Blue-throated Hillstar’s full genome. Understanding the new species, she says, will go a long way toward building appreciation for Ecuador as a hummingbird—and biodiversity—hotspot. An ecotourism initiative is already underway in the country’s southwestern region, managed by the village of Sabadel. But support from national and international conservation agencies is still needed.

“In Ecuador there’s still a few places that haven’t been well-studied, where we could have even more new species, but we just haven’t looked enough,” Bonaccorso says. “If we don’t do something fast, we’re going to lose species before even knowing that they’re there, and that torments me a lot.”

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