The Evolution of Darwin’s Finches

The Evolution of Darwin’s Finches

i Apr 1, 2011 No Comments by

by Nathan Swick, Wake Audubon Board member

A talk that may be of interest to birders in the area is coming to the Museum of Natural Sciences. Legendary evolutionary biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant present highlights of their life’s work on in a free program in the auditorium at 7 pm on April 11.

Peter Grant is professor emeritus of zoology, and Rosemary Grant is a retired senior research scholar, both in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton. In their dogged study of a population of birds popularly known as “Darwin’s finches,” the Grants have won renown for detecting and recording evolution in action, and proving and extending the theories of pioneering evolutionist Charles Darwin, work for which they were recently awarded the prestigious Kyoto Prize.

For much of the public, the work of the Grants first came to light in Jonathan Weiner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of their efforts, “The Beak of the Finch.” Published in 1994, the book detailed the couple’s arduous, yearly six-month stay in tents on Daphne Major, a desolate volcanic island 600 miles west of Ecuador. There, since 1973, they have undertaken what was described in Weiner’s book as one of the most intensive and valuable animal studies ever conducted in the wild.

“We choose a single group of related species for close scrutiny,” the Grants wrote, “and attempt to answer the following questions: Where did they come from, how did they diversify, what caused them to diversify as much as they did (and no more) and over what period of time did this happen?” What the Grants have shown through their relentless study and cataloging of 14 varieties of island finches is how beak size and shape evolve through natural selection within a dramatically changing environment, according to certain mechanisms and conditions.

This presentation is made possible through a partnership between the Museum, North Carolina State University’s WM Keck Center for Behavioral Biology, and the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent).