Sitting at the edge of the plains and the mountains, Wyoming occupies territory that’s home to birds from both the East and West.
When habitats meet and species interact, hybrids can be one result — when a bird has parents of two species. For biologists, hybrids are a natural experiment working itself out, and they can lend insight to a host of questions about biodiversity, climate change, speciation and adaptation.
“It’s a common biological evolutionary concept,” said Elizabeth Wommack, staff curator of the University of Wyoming Museum of Vertebrates.
Several types of bird hybrids are found in southeast Wyoming, and now a hybrid of a new sort is on display at the Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center, a joining of science and art in the study of these local hybrids.
“The Art of Hybridization” exhibit features paintings by Lander artist Rosie Ratigan, who collaborated with Wommack and Paul Dougherty, a Ph.D. candidate studying zoology and physiology at the University of Wyoming, in depicting three types of hybridization among birds.
The exhibit is on display through Oct. 22.
The project was funded by the Biodiversity Institute’s Novel Outreach Grant Program, which supports projects that find new, interdisciplinary approaches to outreach and education while incorporating ongoing research.
Wommack said hybridization seemed like a natural application of the grant, as it’s the subject of active research in the laboratory of associate professor Matthew Carling, and yet remains a confusing, jargon-filled concept for non-scientists.
“A species should be one group of interbreeding animals that are found in one geographic place and time and space,” Wommack said. “When they overlap or meet another species, they should not interbreed.”
She described hybrids as a “test” of a species or a subspecies.
“When you do overlap in space and time, if they do form hybrids, then something is potentially breaking down between those species,” she said.
Red-shafted and yellow-shafted northern flickers are considered two different subspecies, and the stable hybrid zone in the Great Plains where their territories overlap has long been studied by scientists.
Lazuli and indigo buntings are sister species that may have started to hybridize a few thousand years ago and are closely situated on the phylogenetic tree. The Bullock’s and Baltimore orioles share less in common but also hybridize in the Great Plains, where Eastern species and Western species meet.
Wommack said most hybrids don’t survive or reproduce, but sometimes species can merge or a new species emerges that has viable offspring, new behaviors and new genetic material.
“We think we’re finding some,” she said.
As depicted in one painting, a Western species found in an aspen tree and an Eastern species that lives in an oak tree may both be at home in a cottonwood tree in the Great Plains, perhaps that was planted for shade by a farmer.
“It turns out that modifications that humans do on the landscape may be drawing these species to hybridize,” Wommack said. “Maybe they’re looking for trees and they congregate in the only area they can.”
Ratigan said she got involved with the project when Brent Ewers, who directs the Biodiversity Institute, stopped in a couple years ago at an artist cooperative in Lander called Alchemy, where she has work on display. He noticed that she painted birds and connected her with Wommack.
Ratigan lives on a ranch on the North Fork of the Popo Agie River, and the subjects she sees from the windows of her studio often populate her paintings — bears, rabbits, foxes, pronghorn and especially birds.
“I’ve always loved watching birds, feeding birds and painting birds,” she said.
For the UW project, she created nine studies and nine larger oil paintings, including a showcase triptych that features all six parent bird species and their hybrid offspring.
The collaborative process during the past 18 months included regular meetings, talks with other scientists and the close study of photographs depicting the unique coloring and physical features of hybrids.
“I am a colorist and I love pushing and pulling colors and values,” Ratigan said. “In painting hybrids I had the opportunity to create more drama with color, action, angles and values. Each hybrid bird we studied seemed to be unique, and no two hybrids were alike.”
Ratigan said she loved working with the scientists and pushing herself as an artist.
“As my understanding of hybridization has grown, my fascination and love for birds has also grown,” she said.
Wommack said the collaboration was also a learning experience for her.
“I learned a ton about how to communicate, how to work back and forth to create art, and how things I wouldn’t think are important really are,” she said.
Ratigan’s work is also on display in Laramie at the Curiosity Shoppe, 206 S. Second St.