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University scientists: Sparrows producing hybrid offspring

September 5, 2015

DURHAM, N.H. (AP) — University of New Hampshire researchers have found that two related types of sparrows considered high priorities for conservation have been interbreeding, producing hybrid offspring.

The mixed saltmarsh sparrows and Nelson’s sparrows have been found in the coastal marshes of New England.

The researchers at UNH’s Agricultural Experiment Station have found that appearance alone isn’t enough to identify the hybrid zone birds. They recommend that future studies of hybrid zone birds need to include DNA sampling to confirm field identifications.

The saltmarsh sparrow in particular is considered globally vulnerable to extinction. In order to ensure that both species have a secure future, the first step is making sure scientists know for certain which is which.

“Our findings show that hybridization can lead to complex combinations of plumage traits making hybrid identification difficult by appearance alone,” said Jennifer Walsh of UNH, one of a group of researchers.

The scientists collaborated on this project to capture and examine the birds in the hybrid zone on the coast of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

Each bird was classified based on its appearance as a saltmarsh sparrow, Nelson’s sparrow, or a hybrid, and then a blood sample was taken so that the accuracy of this identification could be confirmed with DNA. The genetic data were compared with data the researchers collected on plumage, bill size, and body size to determine if physical traits could be used to predict genetic species and hybrids.

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