Finches Made Famous By Charles Darwin May Soon Go Extinct

Parasitic flies are wiping out baby finches on the Galapagos Islands.
One of Darwin's finches in the Galapagos.
One of Darwin's finches in the Galapagos.

Well this one's for the birds.

A species of parasitic fly may wipe out Charles Darwin's iconic finches on the Galapagos Islands, according to a new study by University of Utah scientists. Without human intervention, the birds could go extinct within 50 years.

The research, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, points to a fly that attacks young finches in their nests at night. Dale Clayton, lead author of the study, told the BBC the "nasty customers" are laid in the nostrils of baby birds, then immediately begin to feed on the surrounding tissue. The young finches subsequently die.

The birds play a key role in Darwin's theory of evolution. The famed naturalist observed several finch species around the islands, off the coast of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean, and noticed different animals had developed adaptations to suit the environment they lived in.

Darwin theorized that the species descended from a common ancestor, but over time, evolved through a system of natural selection. Animals with longer beaks use them to pick seeds out of a cactus, while those with shorter, squatter ones can eat seeds found on the ground.

The recent study looked primarily at one of the most common species of ground finch, geospiza fortis. The animals are "facing potential total extinction," co-author Jennifer Koop said in a press release, and other species are likely susceptible to the same flies.

The flies themselves aren't native to the Galapagos, and were introduced sometime in the 1960s. The authors say human intervention -- including the introduction of fly-parasitizing wasps and use of insecticides -- may help cut back on outbreaks. A 40 percent reduction in infested nests would extend the dire 50-year extinction timeline to more than a century.

But scientists say the iconic finches may have another trick up their wings. Some say the stress induced by the flies may prompt an evolutionary response and lead to some birds making louder noises that alert their parents to the presence of the parasites.

"The question is, will these finches have enough time to develop effective defenses before they are driven to extinction by the fly? It's an arms race," Clayton said.

Correction: A previous version of this article reported that Darwin spent several years in the Galápagos Islands, when in fact he was there for only a few weeks.


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