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New Research on Gulls Changes Everything

posted by Kenny Frisch at
on Sunday, March 31, 2013 

For a long time scientists and birders alike have had trouble not only telling one gull species from another, but even knowing whether a certain gull species should even be a species. In recent years the debate has come down on the Herring Gull complex- whether there are 3 different Herring Gulls, or if Thayer's, Herring, and Iceland Gulls should be all lumped as one species or something in the middle.  All of that has changed though.

 Great Black-backed Gulls have strong genes

Stunning new research has shown that almost all gull species to be hybrids of Great Black-backed Gulls and unbelievably, Little Gulls.  Mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA taken from a host of former gull "species" show genes in all gull species that be traced back to both of these parent species.  Backcrosses and breeding among the hybrids have resulted in the wide range of gulls we see today.  Gulls with more Little Gull genes are more of the smaller gulls (like Ring-billed and Franklin's) whereas gulls with more Great Black-backed genes tend to be larger (like Glaucous and Western).

Opposites attract when it comes to Little Gulls

I'm sure of all of you have many questions, just as I did upon my first reading of this research.  What about mantle color?  It turns out that Little Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls share a common ancestor, one that most likely had a paler back.  In both the species, the ancestral genes are turned off, however when they hybridize, these ancestral genes can be expressed, leading to the wide variety of mantle colors we see today.  What about their breeding ranges?  It's true that both species breeding ranges don't overlap now, but it turns out that right after the last Ice Age, Little and Great Black-backed Gulls shared a common breeding ground where the hybridizing started. It also seems like there may in fact be no "pure" Great Black-backed Gulls or Little Gulls given the amount of cross breeding.

It makes sense that Sabine's Gulls are just goofy hybrids

There are still many questions to be answered, mainly if all these new hybrid gulls are stable hybrids and one day may be considered new species.  Given the amount of hybrids we see each winter in Utah, I think we are a long way away from having anything more than a handful of true gull species.

Personally, I am not looking forward to losing 18 species off my life list, but science is always moving ahead and we birders just need to catch up.

A link to the article detailing all the research can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/bsomrcr

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Blogger Oliver Hansen said...


April 1, 2013 at 4:02 PM  
Anonymous Christine Bastian said...


April 1, 2013 at 8:35 PM  
Blogger Jeff Cooper said...

Amazing! It's about time someone made sense of all these gulls. The article you linked to at the end explained the research in language I clearly understood. Who needs a library of field guides after that thorough summary. Thanks, Kenny!

April 1, 2013 at 10:16 PM  
Anonymous Christine Bastian said...

I realized after posting that if one hadn't read the article they would think I was celebrating the loss of lifelist birds. But I am in no way that competive. You are right Mr. Jeff, the article is a great read, and it's content sheds light on the confusing subject of gulls - especially for a newbie like me.

April 3, 2013 at 2:38 AM  

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