Newly Discovered Hummingbird Already Critically Endangered

This photo of a previously unknown species of hummingbird led to the discovery of the critically endangered blue-throated hillstar. (F. Sornoza)

(CN) – A newly discovered hummingbird found in the Andes mountain range in Ecuador is already critically endangered, a group of bird scientists conclude in a new study.

There are more than 300 varieties of known hummingbirds living in a range of climates. A type of hummingbird known as the hillstar prefers the high altitudes of the Andes, and has adapted to the cold temperatures.

During a research expedition in southwestern Ecuador last year, Francisco Sornoza from the National Institute of Biodiversity observed a new hillstar species with an iridescent blue throat.

Enlisting four other researchers, Sornoza and the others returned to the area the following month to capture specimens. They called the bird the blue-throated hillstar.

They documented their findings in a study published today in the journal The Auk: Ornithological Advances.

The blue-throated hillstar is critically endangered, the scientists say, with no more than 750 individual birds in a habitat of around 100 square kilometers.

“The hillstar hummingbirds occur in the most rugged, isolated, and inaccessible parts of the Andes, where they roost in caves, forage on the ground, and spend half their lives in hypothermic torpor, so the discovery of a new species in this group is incredibly exciting,” said hummingbird expert Christopher Witt.

“This striking discovery confirms that life in the high Andes still holds many secrets to be revealed.”

Witt, from the University of New Mexico, was not involved in the hummingbird study but praised its authors for their comparisons of the new species to other hillstars.

The bird is threatened by gold mining, grazing and fires in the region, and the researchers say a network of protected areas in its habitat are needed.

Threats to their populations meet the criteria needed for international conservation efforts, they say.

“No conservation measures have been taken to date, but a nature tourism initiative is currently underway at Cerro de Arcos, managed by the local community of Sabadel, and a conservation action plan is currently being designed,” the team writes.

A New York Times feature published Sept. 21 documented some of the efforts underway to protect hummingbirds in South America, where conservationists believe warmer climates may be pushing the birds to higher elevations.

“The challenge that global warming poses to biodiversity is that species are going to move upslope as the climate warms,” said the ecologist Dr. Stuart Pimm, whose organization SavingSpecies was documented in the Times article.

“But they often can’t cross unsuitable habitats.”

He added: “Although the Western Andes cover about 3 percent of the earth’s land area, they hold approximately 20 percent of all known species.”

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