Darwin's Finches and Natural Selection

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					   Darwin’s Finches and
     Natural Selection
 Cheryl Heinz, Dept. of Biological Sciences, Benedictine
University, and Eric Ribbens, Dept. of Biological Sciences,
                Western Illinois University

        The Galapagos Islands
• Located approximately
  1000km from the coast of
  Ecuador, South America.
• This is just a little closer
  than the distance
  between Chicago and
   – Mostly ground between the
     two U.S. cities.
   – Mostly deep water between
     the Galapagos Islands and
     the coast of South America.

• Terrestrial species on these islands won’t have many
  relatives nearby.
• Neighboring islands will have close relatives
   – but new terrestrial species won’t arrive on these islands from
     the South American mainland very often.
   – most of the island species have had plenty of time to
     differentiate from their nearest living relatives.

• Another way of saying this is that there is very little
  gene flow between the islands and the mainland.

CQ1: Limited gene flow means:
A: Birds rarely move between the
   mainland and the islands.
B: Birds on the island have the same
   genes as birds on the mainland.
C: Birds on the mainland don’t like birds
   from the islands.
D: Birds on the mainland won’t evolve, but
   birds on the islands might.
               Charles Darwin

• Darwin explored these islands from April through
  October 1835.
  – Entire voyage of The Beagle: Dec 1831 - Oct 1836
• When and where he started thinking about what
  was to become his theory of evolution by natural
• He did not publish his thoughts until the
  publication of The Origin of Species in 1859.
        Charles Darwin’s Ideas
• Biological evolution is change in
  species over time.
   – This was not a new idea at the
   – But there were no good
     mechanisms to explain how these
     changes occurred

• Natural selection is just such a
  mechanism, and this is what
  Darwin contributed.

      Galapagos Endemics
• The Galapagos today is an amazing place.
• Animals live there that are found nowhere
  else on earth.
  – This makes them endemic
  – Perhaps the most famous of the endemic birds are
    the finches, of which there are 13 different species

• The islands are a natural laboratory, and one
  in which evolution can be observed.

Among the kinds of animals
found here and nowhere else:
 – 1 penguin species
 – 1 giant tortoise species
 – 1 marine iguana species
 – 7 species of lava lizard
 – 14 species of sea cucumber
 – 1 species of sea lion
 – 1 species of hawk
 – several species each of
   mockingbirds, doves, owls,
   flycatchers, and yellow
CQ2: Endemic means:

A: The end is imminent.
B: The species isn’t found anywhere else.
C: The species has very specific habitat
D: The species needs to be protected.
E: The species is extinct.

                The Finches
• The 13 finch species include:
  –   6 species of ground finches
  –   3 species of tree finches
  –   1 woodpecker finch
  –   1 vegetarian finch
  –   1 mangrove finch
  –   1 Coco Island finch
• A warbler finch that looks more like a warbler
  than a finch (one of the tree finches).
• The woodpecker finch actually uses cactus
  spines to dig grubs out of branches!
 Peter and Rosemary Grant
• Scientists Peter and Rosemary Grant have
  studied many of these species for the past
  thirty years.
   – Spend months at a time on the islands
   – Often know every finch on an island

• Let’s look at some of their data.

  Graph showing the distribution of beak
depths for medium ground finches in Year 1

CQ3: What is the average depth of
the finches’ beaks in Year 1?
A: about 7mm
B: about 8mm
C: about 9.5mm
D: about 10mm
E: about 11mm

CQ4: How much was the biggest
difference in beak depth?

A: 2 mm
B: 4 mm
C: 6 mm
D: 8 mm
E: 10 mm

     A Change in the Weather
• Year 2
• Like most years, some rain fell the first week
  of January.
  – The rest of January, there was one small
  – The total rainfall for the entire year: 24mm.
• In a normal year, 130mm of rain would fall.
• In Year 1, 137mm of rain fell.
    A Change in the Weather
• The ground finches feed on seeds
  – Year 1 June: 1m2 of lava on the island
    has over 10 grams of seeds.
  – Year 2 June: 6 grams of seeds per m2.
  – Year 2 December: 3 grams of seeds per m2.
• In the drought, the plants conserved their
  resources and did not produce new seeds.
• Similarly, the finches did not mate and did
  not produce eggs in Year 2

• A variety of seeds are produced on the island.
  – Finches prefer the softest seeds, which are the
    easiest to open.
• The seeds above are seeds of a plant called
  Caltrop, in the genus Tribulus.
  – These are among the hardest to eat.
  – It takes a medium ground finch with a beak at least
    11mm long to open one.
  – Ground finches with beaks that are 10.5mm long or
    less haven’t even been seen trying to eat them.
• What do you think will happen to the
  size of the finch population between
  Years 1 and 3? (Remember, Year 2 is a
  drought year.)
• Sketch a rough graph of your prediction

CQ5: What do you think a graph of population
size would look like for Year 1 to Year 3?

  A:                  B:
       Time                Time

 C:                   D:

       Time                Time

     Another Year of Change
• On one day in January of Year 3, more than
  50mm of rain fell on the island .
  – The plants finally flowered and produced new seeds.
• The Grants and their colleagues returned to the
  – They found the finch population had been decimated.
  – No new finches hatched in Year 2.
  – Only one finch born in Year 1 survived to Year 3.

Year 3 Data

CQ6: What was the average beak depth
in 1978? (Remember that the average
beak depth in 1976 was 9.5 mm.)

 A: Just under 7mm
 B: About 8mm
 C: About 9mm
 D: Just under 10mm
 E: Just under 11mm

             Evolution is:
A change in the frequency of an allele, such as an
allele for beak depth, is the basic definition of

CQ7: Did the finch population evolve
from 1976 to 1978?

 A: Yes
 B: No
 C: Maybe
 D: I don’t know

Evolution by natural selection
• The Grants first went to the Galapagos
  to take a quick snapshot of finch
• Within only a few years, they saw
  natural selection.
  – In the course of one season, the beaks
    got 0.54mm deeper and 0.39mm longer.
  – The sex ratio changed, too.
Evolution by natural selection
• The beak size and shape was changing,
  right before the Grants’ eyes!
• This is definitely evolution as we defined
  it earlier.

Two things surprised the Grants:
  1. Evolution could occur quickly enough to
     observe within a few field seasons.
    •   Darwin believed that we did not have a long
        enough lifespan to observe evolution.
    •   A single weather event can cause evolution, if
        there are traits that affect survival and if there is
        variation in those traits.

2. Evolution can occur at very small scales.
  The Grants’ measurements were very
  • The birds weren’t used to humans, and so were
    easy to catch and measure
  • They couldn’t see a difference in even 1mm
    between two finches, but their measurements
  • And due to those measurements, they could find
    that 0.5mm was enough to make a difference
    between survival and death in a drought year
CQ8: Which do you find more
A: Evolution occurs at a rate that we
   humans can observe.
B: As little as half of a millimeter can
   make the difference between life and
C: Both surprise me.
D: Neither was particularly surprising.

• It’s important to note that beak size and shape is
  heritable in these finches.
   – A bird with a large, deep beak will have offspring with
     large and deep beaks.

• Natural selection can occur without heritability,
  but evolution by natural selection cannot!
   – (think about that for a minute…)

  Evolution by Natural Selection

1. Individuals vary in some traits.
2. Some of the differences in traits are
    passed along to offspring.
  – This requires a genetic basis to the trait
  – The trait is thus heritable
 Evolution by Natural Selection
3. Different individuals produce different
  numbers of surviving offspring.
  – Produce different numbers, or
  – Different numbers survive.
4. The particular value of a trait is
  connected to the number of offspring
  – Traits that allow for more offspring to be
    produced are said to be “naturally selected.”

CQ9: If beak depth increased during the
drought, primarily due to selective mortality,
can we really say that this natural selection
was driven by environment favoring the
survival of birds with deeper beaks?

A: No. Beak depth changed due to birds dying,
  not to birds surviving.
B: Yes. Birds with deeper beaks survived at a
  higher rate than birds with shallower beaks.
C: I’m really confused.

Want to find out more of the
   story? Check out …
  The Beak of the Finch: A story of
  evolution in our time, by Jonathan
  Weiner (New York: Knopf, 1994).