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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Saving Finches

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Friday, May 9, 2014/Categories: natural history, birds, sustainability, environment

What does it take to save a species? Sometimes it can be as simple as a bit of cotton.

Biologists from the University of Utah have devised an amazingly simple way to help the famous Galapagos Island finches survive predation from non-native flies that were unwittingly introduced to the islands by tourists.

When Charles Darwin first arrived in the islands he observed that each one had its own unique species of finch. After collecting examples, he noticed that their beaks differed. Each bird also lived in a different habitat and were dependent upon a different food source---ground dwelling, arid cacti, shrub forest, etc---and displayed different beak sizes and structures. From these beak and habitat observations, Darwin pieced together the concepts that would become the basis for his thesis On The Origin of the Species . The finches had shown the natural process, pushed forward by environmental adaption pressure, that became the science which changed biology.

 
Ground Finch and Vegetarian Finches, Galapagos Islands, Equador (credit: Wiki-commons)

Unfortunately, these once remote islands have been receiving increased populations of visitors that have introduced a variety of non-native species including parasitic flies. The fly's larval maggots have invaded the birds nests feeding on baby chicks (and adults) often killing all hatchlings in the nest.

According to Dale Clayton, the lead biologist from the University of Utah's study, "the flies now infest all land birds on the Galapagos Islands, including most of the 14 species of Darwin’s finches, two of which are endangered. Fewer than 100 mangrove finches remain on Isabela Island and only about 1,620 medium tree finches remain, all on Floreana Island. The nest flies have been implicated in population declines of all the Darwin’s finches, including these endangered species."

Clayton and his team devised a very clever way for the birds to protect themselves by providing cotton balls soaked in low concentrations of a bird-friendly insecticide in the cotton. The birds would use the cotton as they built their nests. The files were killed at the larval stage, baby birds were not affected, and populations have begun to increase.

It will require a great deal of work providing cotton balls around all the finches habitat but that's a small price to pay for a bird that helped to change a science.

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