Life Lines by Dr. Dolittle

Sponsored by the American Physiological Society

What happens in a forest doesn’t always stay in the forest…

So, a male scarlet tanager flies into a forest where he meets an irresistible rose-breasted grosbeak. They share some tasty insects, and the rest is history. Or is it? What happens in a forest, doesn’t always stay in a forest. In fact, this encounter resulted in a hybrid:

This male bird, found in Pennsylvania, is the hybrid offspring of a male scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea) and a female rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus). Why in the world is this news-worthy, you may ask?

Even though the two species that gave rise to this hybrid are often found in similar regions, they were not known to breed with each other. In fact, these species separated from each other (genetically speaking) over 10 million years ago! Recordings of the bird’s songs suggest that its singing abilities come mainly from his father.

In a quote published in National Geographic, study author Dr. David Toews (Pennsylvania State University) said, “Bird species can diverge for a long period of time and remain interfertile. That’s not as common in mammals.” While it is rare in birds, it certainly raises the question of how many other hybrids are just waiting to be discovered…


DPL Toews, TA Rhinehart, R Mulvihill, S Galen, SM Gosser, T Johnson, JL Williamson, AW Wood, SC Latta. Genetic confirmation of a hybrid between two highly divergent cardinalid species: A rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) and a scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea). Ecology and Evolution. 12(8), e9152, 2022.

National Geographic

Categories: Newly Discovered Species

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