Probing the Puzzling Plumage Patterns of White Wagtails

Avian Hybrids

How can we explain plumage patterns in white wagtails subspecies?

Wagtail taxonomy is a mess. Numerous subspecies have been described based on morphological differences, but they are not supported by genetic data. A recent study in Journal of Evolutionary Biology took another look at several subspecies of the White Wagtail (Motacilla alba). Could they explain the mismatch between plumage and genetics?

Six Subspecies

Georgy Semenov and his colleagues sampled six of the nine recognized subspecies – alba, personata, baicalensis, ocularis, lugens and leucopsis – and sequenced 17 microsatellites. In line with previous studies, the genetic analyses revealed little population structure and weak divergence among the subspecies.

MotacillaAlbaDistribution.svg Distribution of White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) subspecies (from http://www.wikiwand.com/en/White_wagtail)

Puzzling Plumage Patterns

How can ornithologists explain this peculiar pattern of clear morphological differences without genetic differentiation? Recent genomic studies have shown that a small fraction of the genome…

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Are Wagtail subspecies supported by genetic data?

Avian Hybrids

A phylogenetic perspective on the relationships between Wagtail species and subspecies.

Ornithologists love to delineate subspecies. One differently colored feather can already trigger a response in the most extreme splitters. But are subspecific divisions always supported by genetic data? Rebecca Harris and her colleagues test this idea for a bird group that has its fair share of subspecies: the Wagtails (genus Motacilla). The paper was published in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.

Some Subspecies

There are 12 species of Wagtails, distributed across the Old World. Two species complexes have fallen prey to subspecific splitters: the Western Yellow Wagtail (M. flava) consists of 13 subspecies, while the White Wagtail (M. alba) “only” comprises 9 subspecies. Some time ago I wrote about hybridization between two White Wagtail subspecies (alba and personata, read all about it here).

wagtails.png An overview of the subspecies in White Wagtail (left) and Yellow…

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Watch Your Head: Why White Wagtails Won’t Mix

Avian Hybrids

Hybridizing White Wagtail subspecies are separated by head plumage.

The White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) is one of my favorite bird species to observe. They frantically hop around the lawn occasionally wagging their long tail up and down. This small black-and-white passerine has a wide distribution across Eurasia and is divided into several subspecies. Some subspecies interbreed in narrow contact zones. A recent study in Molecular Ecology focused on a hybrid zone between two subspecies: alba and personata.

MotacillaAlbaDistribution.svg Distribution of White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) subspecies (from http://www.wikiwand.com/en/White_wagtail)

Sampling across Siberia

Georgy Semenov and colleagues collected samples across a 3000 kilometer long transect which ran from the Altai Mountains in Western Siberia (home of the alba) to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan (where personata resides). They compared the distribution of several morphological and genetic traits along this transect. Genetically, the center of the hybrid zone was located in…

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Probing the Puzzling Plumage Patterns of White Wagtails

Avian Hybrids

How can we explain plumage patterns in white wagtails subspecies?

Wagtail taxonomy is a mess. Numerous subspecies have been described based on morphological differences, but they are not supported by genetic data. A recent study in Journal of Evolutionary Biology took another look at several subspecies of the White Wagtail (Motacilla alba). Could they explain the mismatch between plumage and genetics?

Six Subspecies

Georgy Semenov and his colleagues sampled six of the nine recognized subspecies – alba, personata, baicalensis, ocularis, lugens and leucopsis – and sequenced 17 microsatellites. In line with previous studies, the genetic analyses revealed little population structure and weak divergence among the subspecies.

MotacillaAlbaDistribution.svg Distribution of White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) subspecies (from http://www.wikiwand.com/en/White_wagtail)

Puzzling Plumage Patterns

How can ornithologists explain this peculiar pattern of clear morphological differences without genetic differentiation? Recent genomic studies have shown that a small fraction of the genome…

View original post 254 more words

Indigo bunting one of summer’s common songbirds

Our Fine Feathered Friends

IMG_6700 Photo by Bryan Stevens • The male indigo bunting is a resplendent bird.

Two recent summer bird counts emphasized some of the more commonplace birds in the region. While American robins and European starlings were extremely abundant, these two birds are permanent residents and are present year-round. A few other summer songbirds also helped swell the ranks of some of the seasonally common birds. For instance, the Unicoi County Summer Bird Count found a total of 141 indigo buntings while the Elizabethton Summer Bird Count tallied 82 of these little blue beauties. Both of these Northeast Tennessee surveys are conducted by members of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society.

The indigo bunting likes to reside in the boundary region where forests and woodlands meet fields and pastures. Personally, the indigo bunting has always been a bird that is suggestive of the long, hot days of summer…

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