Given the vast array of unique organisms inhabiting Earth's richly eclectic ecosystems, it would be fair to say that Nature thrives on diversity. But while that point is usually best expressed in a broad look at the planet's varied lifeforms, sometimes even a single member of a species still can turn heads by being wonderfully one-of-a-kind.
Recently, at Zealandia eco-sanctuary in New Zealand, biologists were surprised to discover that one of their newest animal arrivals seemed genetically predisposed to shunning those normally cut and dry distinctions of sexual dimorphism. Routine DNA testing on a young bellbird hatched there 18 months ago indicated that it was female, but as it grew things became clearly more complicated than that.
Instead of only growing the white feather pattern found in female bellbirds, this individual showed distinct signs of a male's dark plumage as well. Even the bird's behavior seemed indicative of male bird traits, such as in vocalizing in distinctively masculine calls and acting uncharacteristically territorial, leading biologists to declare the bird 'transgender'.
"We haven't seen anything like this before," conservation officer Erin Jeneway tells The Dominion Post.
Victoria University moult expert Ben Bell was intrigued to hear about the bird's plumage.
"It could be due to a hormonal imbalance or it could be a reaction to shock or an incomplete moult - given the appearance and behaviour, any of those would be unusual though."
It is the first species Zealandia staff have seen showing the unusual gender mix.
Until officials observe the bird during mating time, when its breeding behavior might help shed some light on its gender preference, they are happy referring to the feathered stand-out as both 'he' or 'she'. In fact, homosexual and transgender relationships have been observed in a number of bird species -- but never before in bellbirds.
Despite the ambiguity of the bird's sexual-identification at this point, what matters more is that it exists at all. Bellbirds, like many of New Zealand's indigenous birds, have historically been under threat from the islands' numerous non-native predators. Conservation efforts, however, like the ones underway at Zealandia, have helped turn things around for the species.