A new species of high-altitude hummingbird may already be in trouble

A new hummingbird species has been discovered high in the Ecuadorian Andes, but in numbers so low the bird may already be critically endangered.

Named for its cobalt-colored feathers, the blue-throated hillstar hummingbird nibbles on insects and slurps pollen from chuquiraga plants in a remote, treeless ecosystem known as the Páramo. Like other high-altitude hummingbirds from the same genus, the newly identified Oreotrochilus cyanolaemus has a host of adaptations to live above 3,500 meters, where the air is thinner, colder and oxygen-poor, researchers report September 26 in The AukOrnithological Advances.

“We weren’t expecting a new [species] from this area,” says evolutionary biologist Elisa Bonaccorso of the Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador.

The hummingbirds often perch in creek beds to avoid winds gusting across the shrubby highlands, the researchers say. To conserve energy, the birds rarely hover. Instead, their large feet grasp branches as they hop between flowers.

Hillstars are “a little bit less reliant on flight than other hummingbirds because the air is so thin,” says Christopher J. Clark, an ornithologist at the University of California, Riverside who was not involved in the study. When these birds do take to the air, long wings and a robust tail create extra lift in the thin atmosphere. At night, the hummingbirds cope with frigid temperatures by entering a state of hibernation called torpor. Their naturally high metabolism slows, and their heart rate plummets.

The bird’s limited habitat has already put its survival in peril, Bonaccorso says. She and her colleagues estimate there are fewer than 750 individuals in the wild — packed into five small groups across its 100 square kilometer range. And that range is shrinking. To make way for cattle grazing, nearby communities often burn the native landscape so that grasses can grow. With part of the region also slated for gold and copper mining, Bonaccorso hopes local communities can agree on measures to protect the region’s winged inhabitants.