Why Are There So Many Hummingbird Species? Ask This Colombian!

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Hummingbirds love flower nectar and Colombian ornithologist Juan Camilo Ríos-Orjuela wants to find out how that has influenced their evolution, including how it could have led to the great species diversity seen among these tiny creatures today.

Ríos-Orjuela, a PhD researcher at Universidad de los Andes in Bogota, Colombia, studies how this novel diet has shaped hummingbird diversity and evolution patterns on a continent-wide scale.

“I hope this information could serve as base for planning and environmental management using actual and possible patterns of future hummingbird diversity and distribution,” he says.

Ríos-Orjuela says one of the biggest obstacles (and opportunities) with this project is the high diversity of hummingbirds, part of what makes Colombia the world’s most biodiverse country on earth when it comes to bird species.

“Being one of the most diverse families of birds in the world (more than 350 species), it is difficult to get complete and quality information about each of them, and in the same way, it is somewhat complicated to deal with the amount of data,” he says.

Ríos-Orjuela says for each of the species, researchers expect to have measurements of traits such as the size of the beak, wings and tail. For some of the smaller, faster and more timid species, getting a good amount of data from males and even more from females can be a challenge.

“One of the things that excites me most about this project is to have the opportunity to track the evolution of the group, because knowing the evolutionary history and the possible reasons why they are distributed in ecosystems, we can have information about what could be those minimum conditions that they need to sustain themselves and what could be the implications of their disappearance in a threat scenario,” he says, “The better we understand species, the more we can do for their conservation.”

Weasel And Sparrow

Rios-Orjuela grew up in the Colombian capital of Bogota and says from a very young age he was curious about and interested in science.

“I remember taking the toys apart to see what they had inside, and I constantly wondered why in May there were so many May beetles around the local parks,” he says.

Rios-Orjuela says one of the moments that changed his life was when his mother enrolled him and his older brother in a summer program to visit parks and wetlands in Bogota.

“Within the program, all children had to call each other by the scientific name of some fauna or flora species from Bogota… My brother’s name was the weasel (Mustela frenata), and I was given the “Copetón” (Zonotrichia capensis).

He says that this experience, around the age of 8 or 9, would greatly awaken his interest in animals, biology and more in-depth taxonomy and evolution.

“I am passionate about ecology and conservation of terrestrial vertebrates, especially birds and reptiles, an area where my country, Colombia, have a great richness and at the same time many information gaps due to lack of research,” Rios-Orjuela says.

He would go on to study biology at the National University of Colombia, and from early on in his career, was interested in vertebrates and later traveled to Brazil to study a master’s degree at the Museum of Zoology of the University of São Paulo (MZUSP).

Another Colombian hummingbird researcher is Daniela Garzon, who in 2021 was completing her undergraduate studies in biology at the University of Tolima,

MORE FROM FORBESThis Hummingbird Scientist Followed In A Female Bird Pioneer’s Footsteps

Garzon says her life changed forever when a chance assignment at university led her to fall in love with hummingbirds — she’d then go on to follow in the 100-year-old footsteps of a female bird collecting pioneer Elizabeth Kerr.

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