The Myth of Darwin's Finches

By Branden Holmes (Surroundx) on November 23, 2010

The finches of the Galapagos Islands, one of the modern "icons of evolution", and taking their name from the ornithologist David Lack's 1947 book Darwin's Finches (though Percy Lowe had called them that 11 years prior), in fact played little if any part in Darwin's initial thoughts about evolution. He had collected a large sample of them when he visited the islands in late 1835 (September), but he failed to annotate which islands which specimens came from. Thus, though John Gould later recognized more than twenty different species amongst the specimens he was given access to, Darwin was unaware of their significance, and was probably even unaware that some of them were finches (contemporary taxonomists only recognize 13, plus a fourteenth in the Cocos Islands). Instead he was more concerned with collecting as many specimens of plants and animals as possible.

But knowing that the Galapagos finches constituted more than 20 species, only deepened the mystery. How could so many species have evolved in such a confined area? It was David Lack who finally answered the question of how so many species of finches could live in such close proximity, apparently sustainably. Lack noted that though they share the same geographical area, the beaks of each species are specialized to the point where they have a specialized diet. Thus the finches are separated not by geography but by ecology (the foundations of sympatric speciation had been laid). It was the work of Peter and Rosemary Grant which revived interest in Darwin's finches (see Steven Weiner's The Beak of the Finch), and helped cement their place as one of the icons of evolution. Choosing to study the finches of a single island, Daphne Major, the Grants began studying the finches there in 1973, and have spent six months of every year since returning to Daphne Major to study them. Much of what we know we owe to them.

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About Branden Holmes
I am an amateur evolutionist interested in the theoretical side of the subject.

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