Salty Genes: Hybridization between saltmarsh and Nelson’s sparrow results in exchange of adaptive genes

Genomic study uncovers candidate genes for adaptive introgression in saltmarsh and Nelson’s sparrow.

Hybridization can work as an evolutionary stimulus. For example by transferring beneficial genetic variants from one species to another. This process, adaptive introgression, has been described for numerous taxa, such as butterflies and snowshoe hares. However, examples in birds are quite rare. A recent study in the journal Evolution provides evidence for adaptive introgression between two sparrow species.


Hybrid Zone

Jennifer Walsh (Cornell University) has published a nice series of papers on saltmarsh sparrow (Ammodramus caudacutus) and Nelson’s sparrow (A. nelsoni) that hybridize along the coast of New England (see the Emberizidae page for an overview). The saltmarsh sparrow is a specialist of – you guessed it – saltmarshes, whereas Nelson’s sparrow has a broader ecological niche that includes grasslands and brackish marshes. Using microsatellites, she was able to document gene flow between these species. But could this exchange of genetic material be adaptive? Time to bring out the big guns: genome sequences!

saltmarsh sparrow.jpg

A saltmarsh sparrow (from:


Salty Genes

By comparing the genomes of 36 individuals, Jennifer and her colleagues were able to pinpoint several genomic regions that have been exchanged between the sparrows. Further exploration of these regions uncovered several genes that could be important for life in the saltmarshes.

[Sixteen] of these 24 putative candidate genes confer potential adaptations to tidal marsh environments, including genes with links to osmotic regulation, response to salt stress, response to water deprivation, and muscle development. The remaining 8 candidates include additional regions, including four genes related to DNA repair and several genes with a range of putative adaptive functions (visual perception, response to pH).

It can be tempting to tell an adaptive story for each gene, but it is important to keep in mind that these are “candidate genes” for adaptation. They should be the starting point for further research, not the final answer. So, you can expect more sparrow studies in the near future.



Walsh, J., Kovach, A.I., Olsen, B.J., Shriver, W.G. & Lovette, I.J. (2018) Bidirectional adaptive introgression between two ecologically divergent sparrow species. Evolution


This paper has been added to the Emberizidae page.


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