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Darwin's finches evolve before scientists' eyes

25 November 2017

Soon the bird made himself at home, and despite their differences, he was able to woo one member of the island's inhabitants.

In an incredible story, one bird got lost at sea and ended up creating an entirely new species on a remote island in the Pacific, shocking the science community. The authors of the study have previously reported that there has been a considerable amount of gene flow among species of Darwin's finches over the last several thousands of years.

A new species of finch has evolved on the Galapagos Islands, the archipelago that was central to Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection.

"The novelty of this study is that we can follow the emergence of new species in the wild", B. Rosemary Grant explained. "He was so different from the other birds that we knew he did not hatch from an egg on Daphne Major", Princeton zoology professor Peter Grant told Phys.org.

Back in 1981, researchers working on a tiny volcanic island north of Santa Cruz called Daphne Major realized a unusual bird that didn't look like anything typically found on the remote dot of land.

The scientist took a sample of blood from the bird before releasing him. The Grants and their research team followed the new "Big Bird lineage" for six generations, taking blood samples for use in genetic analysis. What they did manage to attract was each other, and interbreeding resulted in more and more Big Birds on the island.

Professor Leif Andersson, of Uppsala University, added: "A naturalist who came to Daphne Major without knowing that this lineage arose very recently would have recognized this lineage as one of the four species on the island". This shows how important geographical isolation is when it comes to creating new species. Unlike their father, the male offspring were unable to attract females from other species due to the fact that their song was especially unusual and their beaks were odd sizes and shapes.

Even more remarkably, hybrid species have been long believed to be sterile, meaning that they are unable to reproduce and become a viable species, however this observation demonstrates that it is possible.

An island of the Galapagos archipelago is home to a brand new species which provides direct evidence that a species can develop from two other species in as little as two generations. In the case of the Big Birds, researchers believe that the new line has a good potential for success.

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. The majority of these lineages have gone extinct but some may have led to the evolution of contemporary species.

"We have no indication about the long-term survival of the Big Bird lineage, but it has the potential to become a success, and it provides a attractive example of one way in which speciation occurs", said Leif Andersson, a professor at Uppsala University.

Darwin's finches evolve before scientists' eyes