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Italian sparrows share traits with Spanish and house sparrows (Ellerslie77 / iStock)

By mapping the genes of a hybrid sparrow, scientists are starting to understand one way new species can be created.

What they did: The Italian sparrow, which was shown to be its own species in 2011, is the result of crosses between Spanish and house sparrows. In a paper published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, researchers sequenced the genes of Italian sparrows, and compared them to house and Spanish sparrows. The researchers believe that hybridization could be a key driver of speciation and biodiversity.

Why this matters: Speciation occurs when individuals from two groups no longer breed. This can happen for a number of reasons, including the environment, behavioral differences and genetic differences. Sometimes, mating between two species can create a new, third animal that doesn't interbreed with either parent species. It's unclear how common this is.

Some similarities: The researchers found that Italian sparrows get about two-thirds of their genome from house sparrows, and one third from Spanish sparrows. This isn't surprising, because Italian sparrows are behaviorally more similar to house sparrows, and occasionally interbreed with them.

And some differences: The researchers flagged areas of the genome where the hybrid's genes differed strongly from both parent species. These regions could indicate ways the sparrows were evolving away from both parents. For example, the genes that control skull shape and beak size are unique in Italian sparrows. Since diet influences habitat and behavior, changes in beak shape could trigger speciation. The scientists highlighted genes that control for plumage. The quality and color of a bird's plumage is an important part of bird mate choice, and could prevent Italian sparrows from mating with Spanish or house sparrows.

Singing a familiar song

: Although vocalizations were not addressed in this study, they're one way birds can identify mates. A

recent study

found that

birdsong is genetic in flycatchers

, and could be a mechanism for speciation. Hybrid offspring preferred one parent species' song over the other.

Go deeper

Updated 3 hours ago - World

In photos: Pope Francis spreads message of peace on first trip to Iraq

Pope Francis waving as he arrives near the ruins of the Syriac Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception (al-Tahira-l-Kubra), in the old city of Iraq's northern Mosul on March 7. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP via Getty Images

Pope Francis was on Sunday visiting areas of northern Iraq once held by Islamic State militants.

Why it matters: This is the first-ever papal trip to Iraq. The purpose of Francis' four-day visit is largely intended to reassure the country's Christian minority, who were violently persecuted by ISIS, which controlled the region from 2014-2017.

Cuomo faces fresh misconduct allegations from former aides

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo during a February press conference in New York City. Photo: Seth Wenig/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

The office of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) was on Saturday facing fresh accusations of misconduct against his staff, including further allegations of inappropriate behavior against two more women. His office denies the claims.

Driving the news: The Washington Post reported Cuomo allegedly embraced an aide when he led the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and that two male staffers who worked for him in the governor's office accused him of routinely berating them "with explicit language."

In photos: Protesters rally for George Floyd ahead of Derek Chauvin's trial

Chaz Neal, a Redwing community activist, outside the Minnesota Governor's residence during a protest in support of George Floyd in St.Paul, Minnesota, on March 6. Photo: Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images

Dozens of protesters were rallying outside the Minnesota governor's mansion in St Paul Saturday, urging justice for George Floyd ahead of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin's trial over the 46-year-old's death.

The big picture: Chauvin faces charges for second-degree murder and manslaughter over Floyd's death last May, which ignited massive nationwide and global protests against racism and for police reform. His trial is due to start this Monday, with jury selection procedures.

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