The songbird was found after scientists watched nearly 800,000 birds over the last 15 years.
Researchers at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's Powdermill Nature Reserve have made a 'once-in-a-lifetime' discovery—a half-male, half female songbird. The songbird is so rare that it is the fifth such bird ever to be discovered out of 800,000 odd birds in the reserve with male features on one side and female features on the other side of its body. The discovery is especially great news for scientists at the facility because they managed to do so after fifteen years, CNN reports.
"Everyone here, I mean the whole crew, was just so excited," said Annie Lindsay, the bird banding program manager at the reserve, in an interview with the outlet. "There was this scientific interest, of course. But also happiness for seeing something that was so rare." These birds are typically distinguished by their color and the one researchers found was identified as a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. While males of this species have pink "wing pits," females have yellow-brown ones. The most recent discovery at the Powdermill Nature Reserve was a bit different, as it had both yellow-brown and pink wing pits, which scientists pointed out as being a genetic variation called gynandromorphism.
The name of the mutation in itself is derived from three Greek words, "Gyne", "Andro", and "Morph", which stand for Female, Male, and Variety respectively. Currently, scientists have little information on how the condition impacts the songbird's life because it is an extremely rare genetic variation and there's very little evidence to go off of. The condition leaves the songbird in a precarious position, Lindsay explains, as finding a suitable partner becomes a task especially. She said: "There probably aren't any advantages to it. It will definitely impact its ability to mate. We don't know if that female side has a functional ovary. If it does, and it is able to attract a male mate, it could reproduce."
Researchers also have question marks relating to the species' breeding habits as it was not found during the breeding season and the songbird did not display any mating behavioral cues that bird tends to show during this season. When asked if they can breed, Lindsay told LiveScience that it's possible, in theory, and added: "In female songbirds, the left ovary is the functional ovary, and because this bird's left side is the female side, it may be able to produce viable eggs. However, the bird would also need to behave as a female to attract a male mate, and that isn't something we are able to observe during normal banding operations." The team found the bird when they were conducting normal bird banding operations wherein birds already caught are marked a miniature aluminum leg band with a nine-digit ID code before being released to the wild again. What the scientists are sure of is that the bird was at least a year old and that it has managed to survive adulthood in spite of its unique condition.
Although songbirds with the condition are rare, it is not as uncommon. The same can be seen in other animals as well including species of spiders, chickens, and also crustaceans. Gynandromorphism occurs naturally when an unfertilized egg with two nuclei fuses with sperm and produces an embryo with both male and female cells.