APRIL 23, 2016 BY MELISSA TAYLOR
Named after the father of evolution himself, Darwin’s finches played a pivotal role in helping Charles Darwin formulate and solidify his theory of evolution. An already fascinating species of enormous importance, the discovery of a rare gene just made these beautiful birds a good deal more interesting than they already are.
Scientists were able to discover a gene that plays a role in the shaping of the birds’ beaks. This gene, which is known as HMGA2, continues to work in evolving the beaks of Darwin’s finches. And while Darwin didn’t observe much change to his eponymous finches, biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant were able to, having worked over four decades in the birds’ habitat of the Galapagos Islands.
The story behind the discovery began about a decade ago, when the husband-and-wife biologists observed a drought on Daphne Major Island, which hosted two species of Darwin’s finch – the medium ground finch and the large ground finch. The smaller of the two bird species (the medium finches) didn’t attempt to compete with their larger equivalents due to the food shortage that came with this event. Still, the medium ground finch was able to outlive the large ground finch, with the average beak size for the former bird decreasing quitter markedly. And that’s where the HMGA2 gene came in.