Blue-chinned Sapphire Mystery

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Males have the bright blue plummage, while females are less striking.

Males have the bright blue plumage, while females are a bit less striking. Photo credit: Philipp Lehmann

I love watching hummingbirds in my yard. These tiny nectar-eaters amaze me with their feathers of iridescent hues. The blue-chinned sapphire Chlorostilbon notatus is a species of hummingbird covered in shiny blue feathers—more a trick of the light than an actual feather pigment. Here at the San Diego Zoo, I have been able to take an up-close look at this species, aptly named for its beautiful color. However, I am not a bird keeper, I am a pathology technician. And this bird was not on exhibit—it was in my hand as I conducted an external postmortem (after death) exam. This tiny bird, still sparkling in blue feathers, had passed away and it is my job to help determine why.

Blue-chinned sapphires were added to the Zoo’s collection from the Caribbean last year. Unfortunately, when some of them arrived they did not survive very long. My job as a pathology technician is to look for anything wrong outside and inside these animals. But I could find nothing out of the ordinary—all of its internal organs looked great.

But when our veterinary pathologists looked under the microscope at the tissues from the birds, they made a Eureka! discovery—the birds were deficient in vitamin A. The pathologists let the nutritionists know, and they tested the nectar the sapphires were being fed—it, too, was low in vitamin A! The nectar was changed, and the rest of the birds have thrived.

It might seem a ghoulish job to study animal organs, but the results are worth it. The next time you are visiting the Zoo or Safari Park, remember that, even in death, animals are helping us learn about and conserve species around the world!

Rachael Holland is a research technician at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research’s Wildlife Disease Laboratories.