Genetic and phenotypic characterization of a hybrid zone between polyandrous Northern and Wattled Jacanas in Western Panama.

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Hybridization provides a unique perspective into the ecological, genetic and behavioral context of speciation. Hybridization is common in birds, but has not yet been reported among bird species with a simultaneously polyandrous mating system; a mating system where a single female defends a harem of males who provide nearly all parental care. Unlike simple polyandry, polyandrous mating is extremely rare in birds, with only 1% of bird species employing this mating system. Although it is classically held that females are "choosy" in avian hybrid systems, nearly-exclusive male parental care raises the possibility that female selection against heterospecific matings might be reduced compared to birds with other mating systems.


We describe a narrow hybrid zone in southwestern Panama between two polyandrous freshwater waders: Northern Jacana, Jacana spinosa and Wattled Jacana, J. jacana. We document coincident cline centers for three phenotypic traits, mtDNA, and one of two autosomal introns. Cline widths for these six markers varied from seven to 142 km, with mtDNA being the narrowest, and five of the six markers having widths less than 100 km. Cline tails were asymmetrical, with greater introgression of J. jacana traits extending westward into the range of J. spinosa. Likewise, within the hybrid zone, the average hybrid index of phenotypic hybrids was significantly biased towards J. spinosa. Species distribution models indicate that the hybrid zone is located at the edge of a roughly 100 km wide overlap where habitat is predicted to be suitable for both species, with more westerly areas suitable only for spinosa and eastward habitats suitable only for J. jacana.


The two species of New World jacanas maintain a narrow, and persistent hybrid zone in western Panama. The hybrid zone may be maintained by the behavioral dominance of J. spinosa counterbalanced by unsuitable habitat for J. spinosa east of the contact zone. Although the two parental species are relatively young, mitochondrial cline width was extremely narrow. This result suggests strong selection against maternally-inherited markers, which may indicate either mitonuclear incompatibilities and/or female choice against heterospecific matings typical of avian hybrid systems, despite jacana sex role reversal.





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Miller, Matthew J, Sara E Lipshutz, Neal G Smith and Eldredge Bermingham (2014). Genetic and phenotypic characterization of a hybrid zone between polyandrous Northern and Wattled Jacanas in Western Panama. BMC evolutionary biology, 14(1). p. 227. 10.1186/s12862-014-0227-7 Retrieved from

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Sara E Lipshutz

Assistant Professor of Biology

Our research focuses on the evolution of behavior across weird and wonderfully diverse species of birds. This work bridges “muddy boots” experimental fieldwork with a variety of molecular and computational approaches in genetics, genomics, neuroscience, and endocrinology. We have several research foci:  


1. Female perspectives in biology. Cultural biases shape our predictions for how and why animals behave the way they do, and female animals have historically been neglected in biological research. We study the evolution of female competition across diverse avian species, ranging from social polyandry to monogamy in shorebirds and songbirds. Critically, hypotheses derived from studying males (i.e. testosterone focus) do not explain interspecific variation in female aggression. We use population genomic and transcriptomic data to evaluate the proximate causes and ultimate consequences of female competition.  


2. Global change biology. In the age of the Anthropocene, animals are facing evolutionary unprecedented environmental changes. Sensory pollutants like anthropogenic noise and artificial light at night can alter animal physiology, behavior, and ecology on a rapid timescale. Behavior flexibility and adaptation may lead the way in helping animals respond to novel challenges. We investigate why some individuals and species may be better prepared to face global change.  

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