We Just Observed a New Species Evolving Right in Front of Us


Although the findings fly in the face of humanity’s past understanding of evolution, evidently a brand new species has been created right in front of the biologists studying the subject matter. Ironically, the discovery was made by way of the Galapagos finch species—one of Darwin’s famous subspecies—which can be observed in the Galapagos Islands. This region provides several suitable niches for finches, and this seems to have resulted in the rapid evolution of different-shaped beaks and body sizes. Furthermore, the evolutions enable the birds to utilize the food and resources in their environment much more efficiently and effectively.

So much for Darwin’s  idea that, “We see nothing of these slow changes in progress until the hand of time has marked the lapse of ages.”

Although bacteria have been shown to evolve quickly enough for microbiologists to observe, vertebrate zoologists have never been able to make the same claim. Now, doctors Peter and Rosemary Grant of Princeton University on the island of Daphne Major have witnessed something much more than normal. In fact, even three years ago it was suspected that the Grants may have observed a new species. However, the appearance of a self-contained population since then due to the arrival of a stray bird on Daphne Major is far more convincing.

In 1981, a large male finch with a unique beak landed on Daphne Major: Grant has said that “We didn’t see him fly in from over the sea, but we noticed him shortly after he arrived. He was so different from the other birds that we knew he did not hatch from an egg on Daphne Major.” It was suspected that the bird could have been a hybrid of two other species from close by, but genetic sequencing revealed a Geospiza conirostris from Española island, 100 kilometers distant.

This bird flew 100 kilometers and founded a brand new species on a new island. B. R. Grant.

The immigrant was named “Big Bird” by a graduate student, although “Casanova” may have been a more appropriate choice; the bird seduced a local female medium ground finch (Geospiza fortis) to rapidly generate hybrid offspring. Their beaks are ideal for eating Tribulus seeds of varying sizes as opposed to only large ones or small ones, and they also possess the ability to consume cactus nectar which is difficult for normal finches to access. Fascinatingly, other female birds on the island have not shown any interest in mating with Big Bird; so perhaps his initial appeal had something to do with true love in addition to evolution or science.

As per Professor Leif Andersson of Uppsala University, Sweden, “A naturalist who came to Daphne Major without knowing that this lineage arose very recently would have recognized this lineage as one of the four species on the island. This clearly demonstrates the value of long-running field studies.” Both the Grants and Andersson have revealed the results of the sequencing of the genome of Big Bird and some descendants; Daphne Major’s small size and the Grants’ eye for details translate into specific records pertaining to the mating history of each Big Bird descendant.

It seems as though the population peaked at 36 in 2010, and then numbers began to decline after several bad seasons overall. What’s worse, climate change and introduced species will make it even more difficult to repopulate in high numbers. Regardless, the Grants are making the most out of their opportunity to observe a brand new species—something that only butterfly enthusiasts could claim to have been able to do before.

A medium ground finch (G. fortis): the same species that seduced big Bird. B. R. Grant.



Main image: P. R. Grant

*This content was inspired by an amazing article that can be found here.