Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Pink, pink, gold

When I was in Ecuador in 2019, I was blown away by its natural beauty.  The cloud forests of the mid-altitude Andes are, far and away, the most beautiful place I've ever been, and I've been lucky enough to see a lot of beautiful places.  Combine that with the lovely climate and the friendliness of the people, and it puts the highlands of Ecuador on the very short list of places I'd happily move to permanently.

What brought me there were the birds.  It's a tiny country, but is home to 1,656 species of birds -- about one-sixth of the ten-thousand-odd species found worldwide.  Most strikingly, it has 132 different species of hummingbirds.  Where I live, in upstate New York, we have only one -- the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) -- but there, they have an incredible diversity within that one group.  Because each species is dependent on particular flowers for their food source, some of them have extremely restricted ranges, often narrow bands of terrain at exactly the right climate and altitude to support the growth of that specific plant.  You go a few hundred meters up or downhill, and you've moved out of the range where that species lives -- and into the range of an entirely different one.

The most striking thing about the hummingbirds is their iridescence.  My favorite one, and in the top five coolest birds I've ever seen, is the Violet-tailed Sylph (Aglaiocercus coelestis):

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Andy Morffew from Itchen Abbas, Hampshire, UK, Violet-tailed Sylph (33882323008), CC BY 2.0]

What's most fascinating about birds like this one is that the feathers' stunning colors aren't only due to pigments.  A pigment is a chemical that appears colored to our eyes because its molecular structure allows it to absorb some frequencies of light and reflect others; the chlorophyll in plants, for example, looks green because it preferentially absorbs light in the red and blue-violet regions of the spectrum, and reflects the green light back to our eyes.  Hummingbirds have some true pigments, but a lot of their most striking colors are produced by interference -- on close analysis, you find that the fibers of the feathers are actually transparent, but when light strikes them they act a bit like a prism, breaking up white light into its constituent colors.  Because of the spacing of the fibers, some of those wavelengths interfere destructively (the wavelengths cancel each other out) and some interfere constructively (they superpose and are reinforced).  The spacing of the fibers determines what color the feathers appear to be.  This is why if you look at the electric blue/purple tail of the Violet-tailed Sylph from the side, it looks jet black -- your eyes are at the wrong angle to see the refracted and reflected light.  Look at it face-on, and suddenly the iridescent colors shine out.

So the overall color of the bird comes from an interplay between whatever true pigments it has in its feathers, and the kind of interference you get from the spacing of the transparent fibers.  This is why when you recombine these features through hybridization, you can get interesting and unexpected results -- as some scientists from Chicago's Field Museum found out recently.

Working in Peru's Cordillera Azul National Park, on the eastern slopes of the Andes, ornithologist John Bates discovered what he'd thought was a new species in the genus Heliodoxa, one with a glittering gold throat.  He was in for a shock, though, when the team found out through genetic analysis that it was a hybrid of two different Heliodoxa species -- H. branickii and H. gularis -- both of which have bright pink throats.

"It's a little like cooking: if you mix salt and water, you kind of know what you're gonna get, but mixing two complex recipes together might give more unpredictable results," said Chad Eliason, who co-authored the study.  "This hybrid is a mix of two complex recipes for a feather from its two parent species...  There's more than one way to make magenta with iridescence.  The parent species each have their own way of making magenta, which is, I think, why you can have this nonlinear or surprising outcome when you mix together those two recipes for producing a feather color."

The gold-throated bird apparently isn't a one-off, as more in-depth study found that it didn't have an even split of genes from H. branickii and H. gularis.  It seems like one of its ancestors was a true half-and-half hybrid, but that hybrid bird then "back-crossed" to H. branickii at least once, leaving it with more H. branickii genes.  All of which once again calls into question our standard model of species being little cubbyholes with impermeable walls.  The textbook definition of species -- "a morphologically-distinct population which can interbreed and produce fertile offspring" -- is unquestionably the most flimsy definition in all of biology, and admits of hundreds of exceptions (either morphologically-identical individuals which cannot interbreed, or morphologically-distinct ones that hybridize easily, like the Heliodoxa hummingbirds just discovered in Peru).

In any case, the discovery of this hybrid is fascinating.  You have to wonder how many more of them there are out there.  The fact that its discovery ties together the physics of light, genetics, and evolution is kind of amazing.  Just further emphasizes that if you're interested in science, you will never, ever be bored.


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