Photos and Social Media Help Scientists Identify a Hybrid Fairywren

By Macaulay Library Team

fairywren sp.
A presumed hybrid Superb x White-winged Fairywren. This males shows black plumage around the throat and nape similar to a Superb Fairywren and blue body plumage with white wings similar to a White-winged Fairywren.

fairywren sp. Malurus sp.

  • Queensland, Toowoomba, Australia

In 2015, the Macaulay Library began accepting photos of birds alongside eBird checklists with the hopes of creating a curated collection of bird photos to help people learn more about birds. Now the Macaulay Library contains more than 36 million photos of more than 10,500 species.

Scientists are now starting to tap the collection of photos to ask questions about natural history, conservation, and more. Since 2017, scientists have published more than 60 papers using photographs from the Macaulay Library. Another recent study was added to the list that used photos to identify hybrid Fairywrens in Australia.

Joe Welklin, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Nevada, and his colleagues used the power of social media and the Macaulay Library to document two Red-backed and Superb Fairywren hybrids and two White-winged and Superb Fairywren hybrids in Australia. Only four records of hybridization have been reported for fairywrens previously, so any new reports are newsworthy.

fairywren sp.
A Superb x Red-backed Fairywren hybrid male that was photographed attending to a nest with female Red-backed Fairywren. This male shows blue facial plumage similar to a Superb Fairywren and red plumage on the back similar to a Red-backed Fairywren

fairywren sp. Malurus sp.

  • Queensland, Brisbane, Australia

Welklin learned about the first of these Red-backed x Superb Fairywren hybrids on Facebook in an area where normally only Red-backed Fairywrens occur. With a little digging into eBird Welklin found reports of a Superb Fairywren in the same area, well outside the species’ normal range. Puzzled, Welklin turned back to social media to find the eBirder who first reported the Superb Fairywren. When Welklin finally got in touch and saw photos “they matched up,” Welklin said, “so we think we know the origin of these hybrids thanks to this photographer and her eBird comments.” Welklin hopes that with increased availability of photographic archives like the Macaulay Library, scientists will be able to better understand the evolutionary consequences of hybridization in birds.