David Zonana, doctoral candidate at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Photo courtesy Dr. Jennifer Gee
David Zonana, doctoral candidate at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Photo courtesy Dr. Jennifer Gee

By Director
Dr. Jennifer Gee

Lots of mythical hybrids lurk in our collective cultural subconscious, from centaurs that are half-human/ half-horse, to human fishes known as mermaids. More commonplace (and real) hybrids are domestically engineered, such as mules and hinnies, the result of crossing donkeys and horses. But hybridization also happens in nature. Individuals from different but closely related species mate and produce hybrid offspring that share traits inherited from both parental species.

When wild animals hybridize in nature, individuals from different species must accept each other not only as their own kind, but also as potential mates. Both kinds of recognition depend on communication through nonverbal and verbal signals. Some species learn to recognize potential mates by imprinting on the voices, language and appearance of their parents.

In many songbirds, females choose a mate based on his singing a particular song — a new catchy tune (starlings), or a familiar oldie-but-goodie, such as the song sung by their father (Darwin’s finches). Mate-searching singles can be dazzled by particular traits occurring in their own species but that are even better in a closely related species, such brighter or bigger plumage than the version found within their own species. It’s not so different in people, right? Exaggerated traits are considered sexy, such as a male’s burly muscles, tattoo sleeves or suave mustache.

Enough about people. Let’s turn our attention to something more interesting — quail! Three different quail species surround us in the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains. They give us a window into the world of interlopers and transgressors that cross species’ boundaries and interbreed. California, Mountain and Gambel’s quail are distinct but retain the ability to interbreed together. In fact, where California and Gambel’s quail occur together, they form a zone of rampant hybridization, which spans roughly 20 km. On their meeting grounds, California and Gambel’s quail don’t seem to care about what species their mate is.

Why do some quail choose mates of the other species?

The answer is forthcoming. Working with the James Reserve, University of Colorado doctoral candidate David Zonana is pinpointing the physical features that cause pairs of quail to breed together, regardless of their species.

Do quail select their mates based on the same features they use to choose their friends? Zonana has taken careful mug shots of more than 100 quail to compare with each other. He will measure the length of the topknot, the length of the bib and every detail of their appearance.

Each quail also is banded with a unique numbered band and Radio Frequency Identification tag. RFIDs are similar to the microchip implants used to identify and locate lost pets. Using tags that transmit unique ID numbers, Zonana is able to “see” which quail are hanging out together without spending countless hours watching them. He will know each physical feature of every single quail and how much time they’re spending with particular friends.

Stay tuned to hear more about all this, but keep in mind that appearance isn’t everything and especially in nature, beggars can’t be choosers. As you know from living here on the Hill, we are isolated and don’t have as many choices as we would in places where there are bigger populations. For quail, this means that ultimately, the name of the game is to survive and reproduce no matter what the cost.