New 'Big Bird' species discovered in Galapagos Islands

Faith Castro
November 27, 2017

While looking at the bird populations on Daphne Major, one of the Galapagos Islands, scientists noticed one species which slowly turned into a different one.

It turned out the intruder was from a species resident on Espanola Island, more than 100 kilometres away. This is how they laid the bricks of a new species, which now numbers about 30 individuals. Researchers from Princeton University in the United States and Uppsala University in Sweden reported the new species evolved in just two generations, though this process had been believed to take much longer, due to breeding between an endemic Darwin finch, Geospiza fortes, and the immigrant cactus finch, Geospiza conirostris.

The graduate student was on the Galapagos island called Daphne Major when he noticed the bird.

The Grants, having taken an initial blood sample from the outsider, continued to monitor the little population of Big Birds, taking blood from the subsequent six generations.

"It is very striking that when we compare the size and shape of the Big Bird beaks with the beak morphologies of the other three species inhabiting Daphne Major, the Big Birds occupy their own niche in the beak morphology space", Harvard's Sangeet Lamichhaney, first author on the study, said. This happened because the cactus finch couldn't fly the long distance back home, so was forced to pick a mate from one of the Daphne Major bird species instead of his own.

The bird is a member of the G. fortis species, one of two species that interbred to give rise to the Big Bird lineage.

In the latest study, researchers from Uppsala University studied DNA collected from the parent birds and their offspring at regular intervals.

The Big Bird finch, product of inbreeding and rapid evolution.

Fortunately, the new species of finches was bigger, had a different call, and had a bigger beak.

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"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", he says. The hybrid birds couldn't replicate the song of the native finches, and that, combined with their difference in size, prevented them from attracting mates.

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

Ironically, the discovery was published on the eve of the anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's magnum opus titled "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life", which was released in 1859 and largely inspired by his time on the Galapagos Islands.

They did manage to attract each other, and that interbreeding resulted in more and more Big Birds on the island.

"Charles Darwin would have been excited to read this paper".

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

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