There could be more bird species in the tropics



image: White-crowned Manakin.
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Credit: Photo by Phillip Edwards, Macaulay Library, Cornell Ornithology Lab.

Ithaca, New York State– The study of a perky little bird suggests that there may be many more avian species in the tropics than those identified so far. After a genetic study of the White-crowned Manakin, scientists say that it is not a single species and that a major driver of its diversity is the South American landscape and its history of change. These results are published in the journal Molecular phylogenetics and evolution.

“We found that the White-crowned Manakin probably originated from the high forests of the Andes in northern Peru,” says lead author Jacob Berv. “Today, this bird is also found in the Amazon basin, in the lowland rainforests of Brazil, Peru and many other countries, including parts of Central America.” Berv conducted this research while holding a doctorate. a student at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and is currently a life science researcher at the University of Michigan.

“This study shows that there is a lot of evolutionary history embedded in what is commonly referred to as a ‘single widespread’ species in the Amazon,” says co-author Camila Ribas of the Brazilian National Amazon Research Institute. “The White-crowned Manakin is an example of a phenomenon that is probably more the rule than the exception in the Amazon – diversity is vastly underestimated by current taxonomy.”

Around 2.5 million years ago, populations of this manakin species developed outside of the Andes, although many populations remain there today. Those who moved eventually became isolated in pockets of habitat defined by mountains, plains, rivers and climate. Over time, White-crowned Manakin populations evolved independently, accumulating differences in their songs and plumage. The study authors suggest that many of these pocket populations are now sufficiently different from each other that they are recognized as distinct species. This is especially true if variations in song make it unlikely that isolated populations will be able to recognize each other and reproduce – the biological definition of a species.

“In order to understand evolutionary processes in the Amazon, we need a lot more studies like this, with dense geographic sampling,” Ribas said. “For this we need to support biological collections capable of accumulating samples over time.”

The study authors say that the underestimation of the number of species in South America has important consequences for conservation, especially for endemic species threatened by continued habitat loss.

“We’ve only scratched the surface,” Berv notes. “If what is true for this species is indicative of what is happening in other poorly studied species, then we have grossly underestimated the amount of biodiversity in the tropics of South America.”

This research was funded by a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship to the lead author and several NSF grants to other co-authors, as well as by the WR Coe Fund of the ‘Yale University. Data collection was funded by Athena Funds from Cornell of Ornithology and WR Coe Fund from Yale University. This work was also supported in part by the facilities and staff of the High Performance Computing Center in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Yale University, and with resources from the Cornell University BRC Bioinformatics Facility, which is partially funded by Microsoft Corporation.

Jacob S. Berv, Leonardo Campagna, Teresa J. Feo, Ivandy Castro-Astor, Camila C. Ribas, Richard O. Prum, Irby J. Lovette. The genomic phylogeography of the White-crowned Manakin Pseudopipra pipra (Aves: Pipridae) sheds light on continental scale radiation outside the Andes. 2021. Molecular phylogenetics and evolution.


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