Researchers report rapid formation of new bird species in Galápagos islands

Terry Joseph
November 26, 2017

A Darwin's finch immigrated to an island in the Galapagos archipelago and began a new line of finch species with the local finch. He sang a different song to the other birds, and his body and beak were unusually large compared to all the other birds.

Astonishingly, scientists observed, the new finch was established in just two generations, challenging the previous assumption that it takes hundreds of generations for a fresh species to evolve.

Researchers at Princeton University and the University of Uppsala have been studying the finches on the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean for decades.

It all started with one fearless finch that made a decision to explore other islands and flew off to find a new mate among the native finch species on Daphne Major.

Nearly 40 years ago, a graduate student working with the researchers noticed a male bird that was much larger in body and beak size than the species that were known natives on Daphne Major.

The team followed the new "Big Bird lineage" for six generations, taking blood samples for use in genetic analysis.

Big Bird species
The breeding of two distinct parent species gave rise to a new lineage – termed Big Bird by the researchers

The new species, called Big Bird, was observed by British husband and wife researchers Rosemary and Peter Grant, of Princeton University in the USA, evolving and establishing itself on the island of Daphne Major within the Galapagos from 1981. Due to their difference in size and song from the other species, they had no other choice but to reproduce among themselves, thus creating the "Big Bird" species line. It is, of course, easier to achieve the origin of a new species in a small island-like setting like Daphne Major in the Galapagos Islands.

After reaching maturity, the new Big Birds attempted to find mates of their own only to be met with a big problem.

The various groups of finches in the Galapagos had been aptly named "Darwin's finches" to commemorate Charles Darwin, the famous scientist who developed his theory of evolution by way of natural selection after spending time on the islands, one of the most biologically diverse places in the world.

This is a remarkable observation which is demonstrated by the fact that native females do not recognize the mating calls of the new species, which is a form of behavioral isolation, meaning that the two species can no longer breed and are distinct. However, inbreeding has not prevented them from being successful and there are now thought to be eight breeding pairs and a population of about 30 birds.

The original "lost" male was eventually identified as a cactus finch that had originated on a neighboring island over 60 miles away, but the new species is now an entirely unique animal. "Charles Darwin would have been excited to read this paper".

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