Darwin’s finches may actually end up extinct pretty soon.
Parasitic flies are endangering the lives of finches on the Galapagos Islands. These are the same finches that Darwin studied for his seminal work “The Origin of Species”.
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University of Utah scientists have studied these finches and they have given a fair warning. If these rare species of birds are not saved from the parasitic flies, they will die out within the next half a century or so. The pesky flies attack the baby finches while they are nestled in their havens at night.
The new study "shows that the fly has the potential to drive populations of the most common species of Darwin's finch to extinction in several decades," says biology professor Dale Clayton, senior author of the study published online Dec. 18 in the Journal of Applied Ecology.
But the research "is not all doom and gloom," he adds. "Our mathematical model also shows that a modest reduction in the prevalence of the fly - through human intervention and management - would alleviate the extinction risk."
The flies make their homes in the nostrils of the baby finches. There they work their way into the surrounding tissues till the little finches eventually succumb to the assaults and die. Darwin studied these finches in his times.
They played a key role in his theory of evolution which revolutionized science. Darwin spent many years observing the beaks of these interesting birds on the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Equador.
The adaptations these birds made to their environmental situation were noted down well by Darwin. They had literally found an ecological niche for themselves.
"Darwin's finches are one of the best examples we have of speciation," says the new study's first author, Jennifer Koop, who did the research as a University of Utah doctoral student and now is an assistant professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
"They were important to Darwin because they helped him develop his theory of evolution by natural selection."
Darwin admitted that these finches evolved from a single ancestor but he also postulated that they had developed over time through natural selection which was the engine of evolution.
Those finches that had long beaks ate seeds from within cacti. But those with shorter beaks only picked seeds from the ground. The finch that was studied recently is the geospiza fortis.
This species is facing certain extinction unless conservation efforts are made on an urgent basis. Several other species are also attacked by these predatory flies. The flies aren’t indigeneous to the Galapagos Islands. Rather they were introduced in the 60s.
Now some fly vectors such as wasps and insecticides must be sought to eradicate the parasitic flies. Even a 40% reduction in the numbers of these flies may lead to the finches being able to survive in the future.
But the finches may also use their own forces, sources and resources to offset their extinction. The stress response of some of the baby birds may be built up thanks to evolutionary forces in the times to come.
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Thus the baby birds could alert their parents about the presence of the parasitic flies. The only legitimate question is whether they will have enough time to develop this immunity response of sorts.