How Do Traits Change Across a Scrub-Jay Hybrid Zone?

Guest post by researcher Devon DeRaad

Linked paper: Phenotypic clines across an unstudied hybrid zone in Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii) by D.A DeRaad, J.M Maley, W.L.E. Tsai, and J.E. McCormack, The Auk: Ornithological Advances.

Where should we draw the line between species? Biologists have debated this question for over 100 years. For much of that time, Ernst Mayr’s Biological Species Concept, which defines a species as a group of individuals that is reproductively isolated from other groups, has dominated the conversation. The BSC, as it has come to be abbreviated, led to more conservative species definitions, with many distinctive forms lumped together as single species because of actual or even potential interbreeding. Recently, however, more and more evidence of hybridization between species has accumulated, especially in birds. The question now is often not whether there is gene flow between what we would consider species, but how much is too much for them to still be considered separate? And when gene flow happens, how does it affect the array of traits that we can see in hybridizing forms?

The New World Jay genus Aphelocoma – which includes well-known species such as the California Scrub-Jay (A. californica) and the Mexican Jay (A. wollweberi) – has proven to be a good study system for investigating the role of gene flow in the early stages of speciation. Because Aphelocoma species don’t tend to move around much, many geographically-isolated, locally-adapted forms have evolved, but they have not become so different that they don’t hybridize when they come into contact with each other. Several of these contact zones have been well studied, like the one between the California Scrub-Jay and Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay (A. woodhouseii), which used to be considered a single species called the Western Scrub-Jay. In fact, the species was split based in part on the fact that although gene flow was occurring, it seemed to produce traits that were selected against outside of the small area where the two groups overlap and hybridize.

I was an undergraduate researcher at the Moore Laboratory of Zoology at Occidental College when I learned of another, largely unstudied Aphelocoma hybrid zone, between the northern form of Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay and a distinct southern lineage called Sumichrast’s Scrub-Jay. The largest collection of Mexican birds in the world, the Moore Lab has an extensive collection of Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay specimens from throughout Mexico. Using this valuable collection as well as specimens loaned from other natural history museums, we set out to discover whether there really was evidence for gene flow between these two groups and, if so, how much.

I measured the tail, wing, tarsus, bill length, bill width, and bill depth of 133 specimens from throughout Mexico. I also measured the intensity of blue on the back feathers of each specimen with a spectrophotometer, a tool that captures the wavelength of light reflected off of a surface, as back color seemed to be a major difference between the two forms. Our results confirmed that Sumichrast’s Scrub-Jay is significantly larger and has brown back feathers, as opposed to the blue-gray back feathers of Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays from northern Mexico. A new analytical method for visualizing geographic transitions in traits called HZAR also showed that while body size transitioned gradually, the transition in back color was much more rapid, suggesting potential selection on this trait.

We were excited by our results not only because it was fascinating to see two traits, size and color, behaving differently across a hybrid zone, but also because the confirmation of the hybrid zone presents another opportunity to study speciation in action in Aphelocoma jays. And while we’re proud to publish a study on hybrid zones that does not include genetic data, providing another example of the modern value of museum specimens in their own right, we do hope to collect more specimens from the contact zone in the future and use genetic data to see how the genomes of both forms are responding to hybridization. These future genetic studies, combined with behavioral, vocalization, and ecological data, will provide an integrated portrait of these divergent lineages that have come back into contact and will help us make an informed decision about how best to recognize the taxonomic distinctiveness of these lineages—that is, whether the species once known as the Western Scrub-Jay should be split yet again.

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