For decades, countless bird lovers have scoured the Yucatán Peninsula on a quest for rare species. Now it appears they all missed one—and a bright and noisy one at that.
A parrot with paint-box colors and a voice like a hawk’s has been discovered in the Yucatán in Mexico, according to a new study. Christened the blue-winged Amazon, it was completely unknown to science until a few years ago.
That makes it an oddity: New parrot species named in recent years tend to be subspecies later promoted to full species status, often as a result of DNA tests.
”This is, without a doubt, proof that we still live in a time of ornithological discoveries,” says Miguel Gómez Garza, of the Autonomous University of Nueva León, the first to glimpse the new parrot in 2014. “We just have to keep … our eyes wide open.”
But other experts are doubtful that the blue-winged is a new addition to the flock.
A Strange Cry in the Forest
Garza, a veterinarian who cares for wildlife confiscated by Mexican authorities, was exploring the Yucatán’s forests when he heard an unusual bird call. The source was a group of parrots, about the size of city pigeons, their striking blue wing feathers and flaming red foreheads setting them apart from other known species.
With help from Mexican officials, Garza procured a male and female bird and let them loose in a large enclosure in his house. Then he called Tony Silva, an independent bird expert in Florida and a co-author of the new study.
“When I first heard them over the phone, I said, ‘Did you get some hawks?’” Silva recalls. Unlike other parrots, the blue-winged utters a series of harsh, repetitive notes similar to a raptor’s.
The bird’s noisy calls seem to fit with its energetic nature. “They’re climbing, they’re chewing, they’re preening, they’re pulling at each other,” Silva says of Garza’s birds. “They’re just very active.”
Another parrot living in the same region, the yellow-lored Amazon, is more quiet and sedate.
The two birds’ distinctive behavior, plumage, and DNA led the researchers to declare the animal a new species, Amazona gomezgarzai, in Garza’s honor. Their study appears June 27 in the journal PeerJ.
Analysis of the new parrot’s DNA also shows it evolved only 120,000 years ago, perhaps as a result of climate change that created new habitats, the researchers say.
Hiding in Plain Sight
It’s not clear how bird experts overlooked the parrot for so long, but sheer rarity could have helped the birds fly under the radar.
The researchers estimate there are only a hundred blue-winged Amazons in the wild, and they say the birds urgently need protection against deforestation and capture for the illegal pet trade. (Silva himself served time in prison in the 1990s for parrot smuggling.)
Camila Ribas, a parrot expert with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, thinks the blue-winged might be a new species, but she wants to see genetic analysis of birds beyond the two described in the study.
So does John Bates, an associate curator at The Field Museum in Chicago, who notes the specific genes examined in the study are “very weak” for this kind of analysis.
“I’d personally like to see more genetic work before making any conclusions about this.”
For instance, the study’s genetic analysis shows the blue-winged Amazon is very similar to a parrot subspecies called the white-fronted Amazon, Bates says.
“Most Complete Ever”
Other researchers have doubts, too. Though the study is a “good start,” the descriptions of the bird’s behavior are vague, says Donald Brightsmith, a parrot conservation biologist at Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine.
The study’s authors respond that it would be unethical to capture more of the scarce species for study. Silva’s co-author Paweł Mackiewicz, a geneticist at Poland’s University of Wrocław, also says the team looked at the same genes examined in other parrot genetic studies, and that a new species can be genetically similar to others.
“Other experts that reviewed the paper do not undermine or are less skeptical about the species level of the new parrot … saying that the relatively small genetic differences should not be overrated,” says Mackiewicz.
Adds Silva, “I think our genetic study is the most complete ever, and feel confident that the species will pass muster under the scrutiny of science.”
This article was first published by National Geographic on 27 Jun 2017.