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Scientists witness Galapagos finches evolve into new species

25 November 2017

These new unnamed birds were called simply "Big Bird" because they were larger than the native species, and while it was unusual on its own, nature had one more curve ball in store for researchers.

Astonishingly, scientists observed, the new finch was established in just two generations, challenging the previous assumption that it takes hundreds of generations for a fresh species to evolve.

New lineages like the Big Birds have originated many times during the evolution of Darwin's finches, the authors say. "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.

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Recently, a team from Uppsala University analysed DNA taken from the parent birds and their offspring, finding that the newcomer was actually a large cactus finch from the island of Española - which lies more than 60 miles to the southeast of the archipelago. Due to their difference in size and song from the other species, they had no other choice but to reproduce among themselves, thus creating the "Big Bird" species line. This generative segregation is thought to be a crucial step in the evolution of new species. When one misguided bird found himself in the same situation, he didn't wallow in his own self pity; he created his own entirely new species.

Because the G. conirostris was so far away from home, he was unable to return to his home island and instead mated with one of three native finch species in Daphne Major. 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.

All 18 species of Darwin's finches derived from a single ancestral species that colonized the Galápagos about one to two million years ago. A critical requirement for speciation to occur through hybridization of two distinct species is that the new lineage must be ecologically competitive - that is, good at competing for food and other resources with the other species - and this has been the case for the Big Bird lineage. "We have confirmed that they are a closed breeding group".

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The definition of a species has traditionally included the inability to produce fully fertile progeny from interbreeding species, as is the case for the horse and the donkey, for example. That species now has 30 members, according to a study published in Science.

"Charles Darwin would have been excited to read this paper", said Leif Andersson of Uppsala University, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and Texas A&M University, coauthor of the study.

The graduate student was on the Galapagos island called Daphne Major when he noticed the bird. 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. They are bigger, earning them the name, "Big bird population" from the researchers.

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Scientists witness Galapagos finches evolve into new species