Field Museum scientists discover gold-throated hummingbird hybrid, rare find, in remote Peru

A rare gold-throated hummingbird (center) is a hybrid of a pink-throated brilliant hummingbird (right) and the Rufous-webbed brilliant hummingbird (left).

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

What happens when you mix pink with pink?

You usually get, well, more pink.

So when Field Museum scientists working in a remote part of Peru captured a hummingbird with a gold throat in a region where the tiny bird’s neck feathers are typically iridescent pink, they thought they’d identified a new species.

Turns out that the gold-throated bird actually was a never-before-documented offspring of two different species with pink throats. Far from being disappointed, the Field Museum scientists — who recently went public with their findings in the journal Royal Society Open Science — say it illustrates nature’s marvelous complexity.

“It’s a little like cooking: If you mix salt and water, you kind of know what you’re going to get, but mixing two complex recipes together might give more unpredictable results,” said Chad Eliason, the Field Museum’s senior research scientist.

The scientists used DNA analysis as well as an electron microscope to examine the throat feather structure on a “sub-cellular” level.

The work found “subtle differences in the origin of the parents’ colors, which explains why their hybrid offspring produced a totally different color,” according to the scientists.

Other gold-throated hummingbirds exist in the world, but they are rare and the nearest species live mostly in Brazil, the scientists say.

Data on hummingbird populations is also limited — particularly in the Peru location where the gold-throated bird was found.

Hummingbirds “are very hard to do the kinds of things we do for most birds, which is put bands on them and follow them over time,” said John Bates, another Field scientist involved in the study. Bates was among the scientists who captured the gold-throated bird back in 2013.

Chicagoans aren’t likely to see a gold-throated hybrid at their bird feeder because there is typically only one species of hummingbird living here, the ruby-throated variety.

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