These Newly Discovered Hummingbirds Can Survive High in the Andes—but Habitat Destruction Is Creeping Up on Them
By Jason Bittel
Somehow the striking blue-throated hillstar, a hummingbird with an emerald-feathered head and sapphire splash across its neck, managed to elude us for a very long time. Scientists just recently discovered Oreotrochilus cyanolaemus, describing the species for the first time in The Auk: Ornithological Advances.
Perhaps we humans didn't notice the bird before because it's tiny, at just four inches long. Or maybe it was because it lives high up in the Ecuadorian Andes, or because it hibernates long stretches of each day. Who am I kidding? Like many new (to us) species, only a handful of these hummingbirds are left. That's likely the reason we missed it.
Population estimates for the blue-throated hillstar range between 500 and 750. Making matters worse, all of them live within a narrow band of just 38 square miles—none of which is protected and much of which lies within gold mining concessions.
"This is large-scale mining we are talking about," said Elisa Bonaccorso, an evolutionary biologist at the University of San Francisco, Quito, in Ecuador, who worked on the study. When the steam shovels roll in, she says, we won't be talking about a few holes here and there, but about widespread habitat destruction. That the mining wastes would then pollute the area's soil and water would be "almost guaranteed."
Huge mines also bring new roads and, according to another of the study's authors, Juan Freile, operate without properly planning for how they might mitigate their impacts on the natural areas they carve through. While Ecuador's Ministry of Environment oversees such operations, it rarely declines a new project, said Freile, an ornithologist with the Ecuadorian Committee of Ornithological Records, "even if they overlap with ecologically sensitive or biodiverse regions."
But there's an even more immediate threat to the blue-throats: fire.
The hummingbirds live on a treeless plateau, called a páramo, some 11,000 to 12,000 feet above sea level. Winds whip over this landscape, forcing the birds to spend most of their time taking shelter among the shrubs and flowering chuquiraga plants that line the plateau's creek beds. People live up here, too—people with cattle and goats that they raise for milk, meat and wool. Unfortunately, burning the páramo from time to time to clear out old, dry grasses and spur the growth of young shoots that are more nutritious for livestock has become common practice.
The landscape of the Ecuadorian Andes.jpc.raleigh / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0
"Páramos that have been burned recover very slowly and lose biodiversity," said Freile. A smattering of grass species then takes over and the shrubs disappear.
Some farmers also clear the grasslands for fields of potatoes, onions, beans, and grains. About 15 to 20 years ago, when communities brought nonnative pines to the plateau to harvest pulp for paper, the pine plantations began pushing the páramo ecosystem farther and farther from its natural state.
Suffice it to say, the threats to the blue-throats are piling up—and it's unclear whether the species will be able to handle them. Hummingbirds already push the limits of what's possible in terms of energy in and energy out. They are flying acrobats that beat their wings so fast the human eye can't see them, and their little hearts surpass 1,200 beats per minute. But they must replace the calories they burn, and rapidly, or risk death by exhaustion.
There isn't much room for error in such an energy equation—and it becomes even more complicated at more than two miles above sea level. Here on Ecuador's high plateaus, temperatures plummet to levels just above freezing each night. The blue-throated hillstars have evolved a work-around for this hostile environment.
For starters, they're slightly bigger than the hummingbirds you might see at your backyard feeder. This helps them hold onto heat more easily, as do their denser, more insulated nests. The birds are also very frugal with the energy they spend. For instance, instead of hovering in midair like tiny avian helicopters, as do most hummingbirds, the blue-throats hop along from branch to branch while snatching insects and sipping nectar.
And each night, the birds perform something of a magic trick in which their body temperature drops, their heart rate slows, and their metabolisms grind to a halt. It's only through this torpor that the birds are able to survive, since shutting down allows them to not waste precious energy staying warm. While other hummingbird species may use torpor to get through the winter, hillstars do it on the daily.
Whether it's gold mining, fires or a lack of native plants, each disturbance to the hummingbird's adapted lifestyle is like a withdrawal from a bank account that never had much money in it in the first place. The closer you get to zero, even small charges can bring an overdraw.
According to Bonaccorso, the blue-throated hillstar will have little hope of sticking around unless the Ecuadorian government immediately declares all or part of the bird's range as a nationally protected reserve. The conservation plan must take into account the needs of local communities, too. Ecotourism is one option that could mutually benefit páramo inhabitants, whether farmhands or feathered.
That scientists have now officially described the blue-throated hillstar hummingbird is, of course, the first step in all of this. After all, you can't save a species that you don't know is there.
Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.
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From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
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