Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The hybrid goose in the park

ResearchBlogging.orgI have known this goose since 2005. It is a hybrid between Canada Goose and possibly Greylag, and it turns up every winter in my local park. Today, it behaved gallantly, chasing away other geese and ducks while its partner, a Canada goose, fed.
The hybrid goose holds the pair of Canada away from the food source, allowing his partner to feed unmolested.
This goose is a large bird, with a mixture of features from both species (see photos of Greylag and Canada below), with the white patch on the face of the Canada, the pink legs of the Greylag and a beak half, black half pink.
A Canada goose
 A Greylag
 I think the hybrid is a male. He is paired with a female Canada and travels with a Canada flock. Hybridisation is a fascinating issue. In a puritanical view of species - which were created, would not change and could be nicely put into separate drawers - hybrids, were viewed as oddities: unnatural, often sterile, hard to put away in a neat drawer. This view has changed a lot lately. Recent genome sequencing data have shown that we humans seem to be a melange of different hominid isolates that mixed when they met; polar bears and brown bears have been shown to have often interbred during the Pleistocene; Carrion Crows and Hooded Crows do it; Willow Grouse and Rock Ptarmigan do it as well. There are many more examples. Natural climatic changes, such as during ice ages, often brings species together facilitating hybridization. Human introductions, placing species that previously didn't come together in the same areas can also promote hybridisation. Hybridisation is not only more frequent in nature than previously thought, but can also fuel species diversification and adaptation.
 Geese hybridisation is interesting as, when young, goslings undergo a phenomenon called imprinting. After hatching, goslings have a sensitive period during which they attach themselves socially to any moving stimulus, and follow it. This usually happen to be their parents, but they will eagerly follow people when goslings are hatced in an incubator. Even their mating preferences are determined to some point early in life, as goslings imprint on the adults that rear them - this is called sexual imprinting - and, when adults, will try and find a mate of the same species of the individuals that reared them. In nature, errors can happen. For example when individuals practice egg parasitism - laying eggs on another species' nest - or a brood from another species is adopted or brood amalgamation, when goslings from  different species pool together and the adults of one of the species take care of them.
 What happens to the fostered brood when they grow up? They imprint on their foster parents, which rear them as if they were their offspring, but they still look like their biological parents. Eric Fabricius carried out an experiment in the wild to examine the effects of sexual imprinting on hybridisation in geese. He swapped all eggs from two nests of Canada geese by Greylag eggs. The cross-fostered Greylags migrated with their Canada parents and upon returning to the breeding ground the following spring they paired up:
Of 35 returning birds, all 16 females paired with greylag goose males (100%) whereas of 19 males 5 paired with Canada goose females (14%) and the remaining 14 with greylag goose females (74%). The pair bonds generally persisted as long as both birds were present, but after loss of a partner, the remaining bird usually re-mated. Even when this happened several times during the lifetime of a male, the new mate was always a Canada goose female, showing that the males were sexually imprinted to this species. The Canada goose females which had mated with the greylag ganders also remated when widowed, but their new mate could be either a Canada goose or a greylag goose.
All cross-fostered females paired with Greylags. They looked like greylags, so they weren't courted by Canada males, just Greylag males. The pattern in the males is interesting, as they probably actively courted Canada females - and some accepted them-  but they were also found attractive by greylag females and they ended up pairing with them. Only the category of cross-fostered males pairing with Canada are likely to father hybrid offspring. What happens to the hybrid offspring is interesting as they do look intermediate between species. If is still unclear if hybrid CanadaxGreylags are fertile. The hybrid in the park then probably had a cross-fostered dad. He appears to have no trouble keeping a mate, and if he is always as considerate in his behaviour as today, she might as well keep him.

Fabricius, E. (2010). Interspecific Mate Choice Following Cross-fostering in a Mixed Colony of Greylag Geese (Anser anser) and Canada Geese (Branta canadensis). A Study on Development and Persistence of Species Preferences1 Ethology, 88 (4), 287-296 DOI: 10.1111/j.1439-0310.1991.tb00283.x

Edwards, C., Suchard, M., Lemey, P., Welch, J., Barnes, I., Fulton, T., Barnett, R., O'Connell, T., Coxon, P., Monaghan, N., Valdiosera, C., Lorenzen, E., Willerslev, E., Baryshnikov, G., Rambaut, A., Thomas, M., Bradley, D., & Shapiro, B. (2011). Ancient Hybridization and an Irish Origin for the Modern Polar Bear Matriline Current Biology, 21 (15), 1251-1258 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2011.05.058

Quintela, M., Thulin, C., & Höglund, J. (2010). Detecting hybridization between willow grouse (Lagopus lagopus) and rock ptarmigan (L. muta) in Central Sweden through Bayesian admixture analyses and mtDNA screening Conservation Genetics, 11 (2), 557-569 DOI: 10.1007/s10592-009-0040-9

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