Watching evolution happen in two lifetimes

Emily Singer writes: When Rosemary and Peter Grant first set foot on Daphne Major, a tiny island in the Galápagos archipelago, in 1973, they had no idea it would become a second home. The husband and wife team, now emeritus biology professors at Princeton University, were looking for a pristine environment in which to study evolution. They hoped that the various species of finches on the island would provide the perfect means for uncovering the factors that drive the formation of new species.

The diminutive island wasn’t a particularly hospitable place for the Grants to spend their winters. At less than one-hundredth the size of Manhattan, Daphne resembles the tip of a volcano rising from the sea. Visitors must leap off the boat onto the edge of a steep ring of land that surrounds a central crater. The island’s vegetation is sparse. Herbs, cactus bushes and low trees provide food for finches — small, medium and large ground finches, as well as cactus finches — and other birds. The Grants brought with them all the food and water they would need and cooked meals in a shallow cave sheltered by a tarp from the baking sun. They camped on Daphne’s one tiny flat spot, barely larger than a picnic table.

Though lacking in creature comforts, Daphne proved to be a fruitful choice. The Galápagos’ extreme climate — swinging between periods of severe drought and bountiful rain — furnished ample natural selection. Rainfall varied from a meter of rain in 1983 to none in 1985. A severe drought in 1977 killed off many of Daphne’s finches, setting the stage for the Grants’ first major discovery. During the dry spell, large seeds became more plentiful than small ones. Birds with bigger beaks were more successful at cracking the large seeds. As a result, large finches and their offspring triumphed during the drought, triggering a lasting increase in the birds’ average size. The Grants had observed evolution in action.

That striking finding launched a prolific career for the pair. They visited Daphne for several months each year from 1973 to 2012, sometimes bringing their daughters. Over the course of their four-decade tenure, the couple tagged roughly 20,000 birds spanning at least eight generations. (The longest-lived bird on the Grants’ watch survived a whopping 17 years.) They tracked almost every mating and its offspring, creating large, multigenerational pedigrees for different finch species. They took blood samples and recorded the finches’ songs, which allowed them to track genetics and other factors long after the birds themselves died. They have confirmed some of Darwin’s most basic predictions and have earned a variety of prestigious science awards, including the Kyoto Prize in 2009.

Now nearly 80, the couple have slowed their visits to the Galápagos. These days, they are most excited about applying genomic tools to the data they collected. They are collaborating with other scientists to find the genetic variants that drove the changes in beak size and shape that they tracked over the past 40 years. Quanta Magazine spoke with the Grants about their time on Daphne; an edited and condensed version of the conversation follows. [Continue reading…]

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