As an Earthwatch volunteer, you’ll study how Darwin’s finches continue to evolve in relation to another immigrant to the Galapagos: the Philornis downsi fly. This introduced species probably came to the Galapagos on cargo ships in the 1960s. As an adult, the fly eats fruit. But it lays its eggs in finch nests, and once they hatch, the larvae feed on the blood and tissue of the nestlings. Since 2000, we have observed alarmingly high nestling mortality, with anywhere from 30 to 98 percent of chicks dying each year. Our research focuses on two related issues: how best to control the Philornis parasite, and how physical changes due to Philornis are shaping evolutionary change in Darwin’s finches.
As a project participant, you will be involved in many aspects of research:
DNA and Evolution. You’ll help set up, monitor, and remove finches from mist nets. You’ll play finch songs on iPods to attract birds to the nets. You’ll also examine the evolutionary response of the finches to Philornis and other selective pressures by measuring changes in their physical shape and genetics.
Bird Song. You’ll help record the number of times a male finch sings at his display nest (males usually build several nests in their territories to attract females, and use the best as their display nest). We will train you to make high-quality recordings and show you how we will analyze them to compare songs between species, habitats, and islands.
Monitoring finch nests. You’ll help to search for nests, using a GPS unit to mark nest positions, checking nests for finch activity, and collecting and disassembling used nests to count the parasite larvae and pupae. You’ll also record finch behavior at nests, such as singing, mate guarding, egg incubating, nestling feeding, and activity by finch predators.
Surveying bird populations. As part of a land-bird monitoring program in partnership with Galapagos National Park, you’ll help researchers record bird activity at various points on the islands. You’ll help find birds and record location, weather, and other observational data. You may also record the bird song at these points to facilitate comparisons of song dialect.
With your help, we can increase our annual monitoring efforts of finch populations across islands to keep close track of how their populations are faring as we implement control programs for Philornis. Your work will help save Darwin’s finches from extinction: birds that have provided humankind with transformative insights about evolutionary processes and dynamics, and that are still the best animals from which to learn about how vertebrates evolve in the wild.
Meet the Scientists
Prof. Sonia Kleindorfer
Prof. Sonia Kleindorfer is an ornithologist with expertise in behavioral ecology and evolutionary ecology. She studied at the University of Pennsylvania, University of Vienna, and the University of Washington School of Medicine. She is the scientific director of the Flinders Research Centre for Climate Adaptation and Animal Behaviour and the head of department for Animal Behaviour at Flinders University.
Dr. Jeremy Robertson
Dr. Jeremy Robertson is a specialist in bioacoustics, and is also a Senior Lecturer at Flinders University. He did his Honours degree at Aberdeen University, Scotland and completed his Ph.D. some thirty years ago at the Australian National University, focusing on the role of acoustics in female mate choice and male competition for access to females in frogs. He has since worked on song in a variety of birds, and with Darwin’s finches specifically since 2004. Together with Prof. Kleindorfer, he has supervised several Ph.D.s that serve as the basis of this Earthwatch project.
Dr. Jody O'Connor
Dr. Jody O’Connor has a Ph.D. in conservation biology from Flinders University, South Australia. Jody implemented the video monitoring of Darwin’s finch nests and documented the massive in-nest mortality patterns caused by Philornis downsi. Because of Jody’s work on population dynamics, the International Union for Conservation of Nature recognizes the medium tree finch found only on Floreana Island as critically endangered.