A bird with toxic feathers may have taken on the colors of a poisonous neighbor, according to a new genetic analysis.
Plenty of butterflies have evolved copycat warning colors, but cases of bird mimicry have been hard to demonstrate, explains John P. Dumbacher of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Field experiments testing for insect mimicry don't translate to birds. Scientists can't net birds by the hundreds and whisk them off to different habitats. So, Dumbacher and Robert Fleischer, also of the Smithsonian, turned to genetic analysis.
Because political turmoil in New Guinea kept them out of parts of the birds' habitats, Dumbacher and Fleischer coaxed DNA from old museum specimens. The pair worked out a family tree for two species of small poisonous birds, the hooded and the variable pitohui.