Scientists Find 21 New Bird Species by Asking the Birds

By Elizabeth Preston | September 15, 2017 1:59 pm

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Same-or-different is the concept behind the most basic toddler games. We encourage kids to put the square block in the square hole, find two cards that match, place the cow in the cow-shaped puzzle slot. But in nature, the cow-shaped slots are harder to see. Deciding whether two animals are the same or different species frequently causes debates among scientists. In Central and South America, researchers tried to find the differences between many pairs of closely related birds by simply asking the birds. The results suggested they’d found 21 new species.

Most bird scientists follow the rule that if birds don’t usually mate with each other, they’re different species. Populations of related birds that live in slightly different places may be in the process of evolving into two separate species. To decide whether relatives living apart from each other are the same species or not, scientists often compare recordings of the birds’ songs, write Benjamin Freeman of the University of British Columbia and his coauthor, Graham Montgomery of Cornell University.

Another, more difficult way to ask the question is to lug speakers into the wild and play a recording of one bird’s song to the other bird. How it reacts will tell you whether the bird thinks it’s hearing its own species or not.

Freeman and Montgomery decided to compare the two methods of telling bird species apart. As part of a larger study, they went to Panama, Costa Rica and Ecuador and looked at 72 pairs of birds that are closely related but live apart. Some of the pairs in the study are already categorized as separate species, while others are only “subspecies.”

The researchers searched the forests for the birds they were interested in. When they found a (usually male) bird defending a patch of land, they set up a wireless speaker a little ways away. Then they played recordings of two different songs. One song came from another bird in the target bird’s local population. The other song belonged to a bird from the related but geographically separate population.

If the bird heard another bird of its species singing nearby, it ought to respond by aggressively approaching the speaker. Freeman and Montgomery only included experiments where the bird reacted this way to hearing another member of its local population. If the bird also tried to chase off the speaker when it played the other recording—the song of a bird from the geographically separate population—then the researchers assumed the target bird considered that bird the same species.

In other words, a bird reacting to the speaker meant the two populations were one species. A bird ignoring the speaker meant they were different.

Freeman and Montgomery say this is actually a conservative way to judge whether birds belong to the same species or not. When a territorial bird is chasing off a challenger, mistaken identity isn’t a big deal. But when a female bird chooses her mate—often by his song—she needs to be picky. So female birds are likely more selective about which songs they consider “same” or “different,” the authors say, and those mating choices are the ones that can drive two populations apart evolutionarily.

The researchers also analyzed the acoustic traits of songs from the 72 bird pairs. Their software measured things like high and low frequencies, average note rate, and average length of notes.

They found that when a pair of birds had very different songs according to the computer analysis, one bird was also likely to ignore a recording of the other. But when the differences between songs were smaller, the acoustic analysis didn’t say much about how birds would react to each other. Based on the birds that ignored each other’s calls in the study, Freeman and Montgomery say they found 21 bird pairs that ought to be different species but are currently classified as the same.

This means scientists shouldn’t rely on acoustic analysis to judge whether birds are the same species or not, the authors say. Whenever possible it’s better to, in their words, “ask the birds themselves.”


Image: An orange-billed sparrow, by Francesco Veronesi (via Flickr). This is one of the species that, according to the study, ought to be two.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: birds, evolution, language, singing, top posts
MORE ABOUT: Animals, Evolution
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  • OWilson

    I think that hypothesis might be challenged a little if applied to human species! :)

    • Ben Freeman

      Hello, thanks for the comment.

      You are absolutely right that the equivalent logic does not apply to human language.

      The reason we think that populations of the “same” species that live in different places and have different songs and ignore each other’s song ought to be considered different species is that they have a strong genetic predisposition to learn their local song.

      In fact, most of the birds in our study are thought to have nearly 100% innate song. That is, they are genetically “programmed” to sing a specific song type. Experiments show this to be true for at least several species. For example, nestling antbirds still sing the normal song of their species even when they are raised in silence, or when they grow up only hearing songs of a related species that sings differently (broadcast through a speaker).

      In this way bird song is very different from human language. I might not be able to understand Mandarin Chinese nor be able to produce some of the sounds of that language, but surely if I had been baby-swapped and raised by Mandarin-speaking parents, I’d be a fluent speaker. Birds are different in that they are NOT “blank slates” along these lines.

      Best,

      Ben Freeman

      • OWilson

        Thanks. That makes sense. As an avid, bur alway skeptical follower of these blogs, I sometimes have to be reminded that these are serious studies, and I should hold back my natural tendency to satire.

        I am writing from the Dominican Republic so it occured to me that the songs/music of say, U.S., Iran, and China, could be deemed to be a separate “species”. :)

  • Timothy R. Johnson

    Could the data be suggesting “convergent” evolution? That is if slightly different species interbreed we could see convergent evolution. Another example might be homosapians breeding with Neanderthal in upper Europe in the early days. What do others think?

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Inkfish

Like the wily and many-armed cephalopod, Inkfish reaches into the far corners of science news and brings you back surprises (and the occasional sea creature). The ink is virtual but the research is real.

About Elizabeth Preston

Elizabeth Preston is a science writer whose articles have appeared in publications including Slate, Nautilus, and National Geographic. She's also the former editor of the children's science magazine Muse, where she still writes in the voice of a know-it-all bovine. She lives in Massachusetts. Read more and see her other writing here.

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