In 2017, researchers working in the Ecuadorian Andes stumbled across a previously unknown species of hummingbird. They’ve announced the discovery of the bird, Blue-throated Hillstar, today in a study published in The Auk: Ornithological Advances.
Hillstars are unusual among hummingbirds. They live in high-elevation habitats in the Andes and have special adaptations to cold temperatures. Francisco Sornoza-Molina, of Ecuador’s Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad, first observed and photographed a previously unknown hillstar during fieldwork in southwest Ecuador in April 2017. After the first expedition, he went back the next month with other researchers to study the possible new species, capture specimens, and confirm the finding. They dubbed the new species Oreotrochilus cyanolaemus, or the Blue-throated Hillstar, for its iridescent blue throat.
Sornoza-Molina and his colleagues recommend in their paper that the bird be designated critically endangered on the international Red List.
The Blue-throated Hillstar is found only along bush-lined creeks in an area of about 100 square kilometers, and the researchers estimate there are no more than 750 individuals, perhaps fewer than 500. Threats to its habitat include fire, grazing, and gold mining. “No conservation measures have been taken to date, but a nature tourism initiative is currently underway at Cerro de Arcos, managed by the local community of Sabadel, and a conservation action plan is currently being designed,” the authors note.
“Complete support from national and international conservation agencies is needed in order to save this species,” says coauthor Sornoza-Molina. “The action plan for the conservation of this bird is creating a network of protected areas along its geographic range.”
“The hillstar hummingbirds occur in the most rugged, isolated, and inaccessible parts of the Andes, where they roost in caves, forage on the ground, and spend half their lives in hypothermic torpor, so the discovery of a new species in this group is incredibly exciting,” says the University of New Mexico’s Christopher Witt, a hummingbird expert who wasn’t involved in the study. “This striking discovery confirms that life in the high Andes still holds many secrets to be revealed. The location is fitting for a new species of hillstar, because it’s a remote, high mountain range that is isolated and is sandwiched between the ranges of two other hillstar species. The authors did a thorough job comparing the new form to its relatives in every respect.”