Hybridization is influential in shaping species' dynamics and has many evolutionary and conservation implications. Identification of hybrid individuals typically relies on morphological data, but the assumption that hybrids express intermediate traits is not always valid, because of complex patterns of introgression and selection. We characterized phenotypic and genotypic variation across a hybrid zone between 2 tidal-marsh birds, the Saltmarsh Sparrow (Ammodramus caudacutus) and Nelson's Sparrow (A. nelsoni) (n = 290), and we sought to identify morphological traits that could be used to classify admixed individuals. Sparrows were sampled from a total of 34 marshes, including 23 sympatric and 11 putatively allopatric marshes. Each individual was scored at 13 plumage traits, and standard morphometric data were collected. We used genotyping analysis at 24 microsatellite loci to categorize individuals into genotypic classes of pure, F1–F2, or backcrossed. Genetic data revealed that 52% of individuals sampled along the geographic transect were of mixed ancestry, and the majority of these were backcrossed. Traits related to the definition of plumage features (streaking, crown, and face) showed less overlap between genotypic classes than traits related to the amount or color of plumage features. Although morphological data performed well in distinguishing between the 2 taxa, pure and backcrossed individuals of each parental type could not be distinguished because of substantial overlap in plumage and morphology. We conclude that the discrimination of pure and hybrid individuals is not possible in the absence of genetic data. Our results have implications for conservation of pure populations, as extensive backcrossing throughout the hybrid zone may present challenges for monitoring pure species identified by morphology alone.

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The Auk: Ornithological Advances


American Ornithological Society

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This is an article published by American Ornithological Society in The Auk: Ornithological Advances in 2015, available online: