UMZM Curator Dr. Libby Beckman uses genetics to understand hybridization in birds

hooded siskins from peru

Fig. 1. Hooded siskins from Peru. Photo Glenn Bartley Nature photography.

When two species breed and produce young, species can merge into one species, one species can go extinct, or in some cases, the species can transfer genes, but remain separate species. Libby is interested in how bird species exchange genetic material (genes) and what the evolutionary consequences are of interbreeding. Does exchanging genes impact the way a bird species looks? What it eats? Where it can live? She uses genetics to investigate the presence of interbreeding among very close relatives in a group of small seed-eating birds, the South American Siskins, in the high Andes. Like the famous Darwin’s Finches on the Galapagos, in this group of finches in South America, species that are closely related to one another live in the same place, and may have different bill and body shapes. Libby has found that in the high Andes, finches have interbred in the recent past; this suggests that hybridization in species that are very closely related is a frequent event across the natural world. Perhaps when we look for the “Tree of Life”, we should be looking for a “Web of Life” instead!

To learn more about sorting the South American siskins, read "Detecting introgression despite phylogenetic uncertainty: the case of the South American siskins".