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Wildlife & Ecosystems

Darwin’s Finches and Natural Selection in the Galapagos

Earthwatchers helped protect the iconic Darwin’s finches of the Galapagos Islands.

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The facts

Why the research is important

Why the research is important

Darwin’s finches are still the best animals from which to learn about how vertebrates evolve in the wild.

Earthwatch volunteers played a key role in this study, helping researchers to monitor changes in Darwin’s finches on two Galapagos Islands.

Earthwatch volunteers studied how Darwin’s finches continue to evolve in relation to another immigrant to the Galapagos: the Philornis downsi fly. This species probably came to the Galapagos on cargo ships in the 1960s. As an adult, the fly eats fruit. But it lays its eggs in finch nests, and once they hatch, the larvae feed on the blood and tissue of the nestlings. Since 2000, researchers have observed alarmingly high nestling mortality, with anywhere from 30 to 98 percent of chicks dying each year. The research focused on two related issues: how best to control the Philornis parasite, and how physical changes due to Philornis are shaping evolutionary change in Darwin’s finches.

Darwin’s finches are considered to be the world’s fastest-evolving vertebrates.

Earthwatch volunteers worked closely with researchers to increase annual monitoring efforts of finch populations across islands to keep close track of how their populations fared as control programs for Philornis were implemented. Their work helped save Darwin’s finches from extinction: birds that have provided humankind with transformative insights about evolutionary processes and dynamics, and that are still the best animals from which to learn about how vertebrates evolve in the wild.

About the research area

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, Ecuador, South America

Daily life in the field

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The Scientists

MEET THE LEAD SCIENTIST

Sonia
Kleindorfer
Professor, Flinders University

ABOUT Sonia Kleindorfer

Dr. Sonia Kleindorfer has expertise in animal behavior, biodiversity conservation, ecology and evolutionary biology. She believes that birds are an excellent system to test behavioral response to threat, because birds have a rich vocal repertoire that is both innate and learned. They vocalize in response to threat, and the vocalizations may function in sexual or natural selection contexts.

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