The bright yellow Tangara Inti has been found in Bolivia and Peru.
âIf we want to make ecosystems sustainable, we need to know all the players. ”
After persuading his parents to bring home a bird feeder from his family’s hardware store, Kevin burns became enthralled watching his avian visitors. He leafed through the pages of a large encyclopedia to find out what kind of bird flew.
Now an ornithologist and professor of biology at San Diego State University, Burns’ childhood fascination led him and his collaborators to identify a new bird, Heliothraupis oneilli, not previously described in a field guide.
The bird’s common name, the inti tanager, is named after the word for sun in Quechua, the native language of the tropical mountainous region it inhabits, worthy of its bright yellow feathers and tendency to sing to midday.
Burns colleagues at Louisiana State University first spotted the bird during a birding tour more than twenty years ago in the Andes foothills of Peru. But they were unable to collect enough genetic material for analysis until 2011, when they found other Inti Tangaras breeding in neighboring Bolivia during the rainy season.
Burns and his graduate students were then able to analyze nearly 5,000 genes to understand how this bird fits into the puzzle of more than 300 other species of tangaras, the second most diverse family of birds.
Comparing the Inti Tanager to the species that shared the most genetic similarities, only some had a yellow coloration and none had a bright orange-pink bill. It is also very unusual for tanagers to migrate between tropical regions. The genetic analysis combined with the unique appearance and behaviors led to the decision to propose it not only as a new species but also as a new genus.
When asked why a new genus and species of bird is important, Burns replied, âIf we are to preserve ecosystems, we have to know all the players.
He likened it to a mechanic trying to start a car without knowing all the parts of a car and what they do.
âWe should be concerned about biodiversity for many reasons – philosophical, aesthetic, but also practical reasons,â Burns said. âAll of these creatures, birds or insects, have evolved for millions of years and have been solving problems for millions of years that we might need to solve. “
Other unidentified flora and fauna species may contain chemical compounds useful for treating disease or have special adaptations that can guide engineers in building more efficient evolution-based machines.
âBirds are very well known compared to other organisms. You would think that there is not much left to discover, âsaid Shannon hackett, the associate curator of birds for the Negaunee Integrative Research Center at the Field Museum in Chicago, who was not involved in the identification of the Tangara Inti. “Some of the best bird watchers have been to these places all the time and have never seen this bird.”
âThere’s always the idea that you could be that person, that you could capture lightning in a bottle. It responds to the childhood curiosity to find out something that no one knew the day before and they did it with a bird with a pink beak, âadded Hackett.
The identification of the Tangara Inti was reported in an article recently published in Ornithology and genetic analysis research was supported by the National Science Foundation.