From the BBC:
Wednesday, 18 November 2009
DNA clue to save rare Darwin bird
Sub-populations of the mockingbirds remain on two small islands
A team of geneticists extracted DNA from two birds that the famous naturalist collected in 1835.
By comparing this to DNA from living sub-populations on two other islands, the scientists revealed genetic clues about how best to conserve the birds.
They report their findings in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.
Today only two small sub-populations survive on two tiny satellite islets – Champion and Gardner-by-Floreana.
Survival of species
Karen James, a Natural History Museum of London researcher who was involved in this study, said the Floreana mockingbird was one of the rarest birds in the world.
“It was also important for Darwin’s realisation that organisms might evolve independently on islands,” she told BBC News.
The Charles Darwin Foundation, which carries out conservation research in the Galapagos, plans eventually to reintroduce the birds to Floreana.
But for this reintroduction to be effective, Dr James said, a population would have to be restored that was “as close as possible to what existed before”.
To find out what this population would look like, the scientists needed to study the Floreana birds.
“There are very few of these specimens,” Dr James explained. “But the Natural History Museum has two of them and they just so happened to have been collected by Darwin and Fitzroy.”
Dr James and her colleagues were given the opportunity to take tiny samples from the toe pads of each historic specimen, from which to extract DNA.
The team found “genetic signals” in each of the two surviving species that were also present in Darwin’s samples.
This revealed that the two sub-populations split from each other very recently. This split, the researchers said, was likely caused by the Floreana mockingbird becoming extinct.
Its extinction would have severed a “bridge” between the two populations – meaning that it was no longer possible for them to interbreed.
Even though they have evolved independently and become inbred, this study showed that the tiny sub-populations have retained much of the important “genetic variation” once found in the mockingbirds on Floreana.
This is good news for the survival of the species.
It has led the researchers to conclude that future conservation plans should focus on protecting “the two satellite populations in situ and establishing a single third population on Floreana”.
This reintroduction could use birds from both islands, the researchers said, “to maximize genetic diversity”.
Dr James said the project highlighted the importance of historic specimens.
“Though Darwin knew nothing of DNA, the specimens he and Fitzroy collected have, after 170 years of safe-keeping in collections, yielded genetic clues to suggest a path for conservation of this critically endangered and historically important species,” she said.
Darwin’s Handwritten Manuscripts and Notes Digitized: here.
Darwin’s finches and introduced parasites: here.
The large cactus-finch generally feeds on seeds, arthropods and, as its name suggests, various parts of the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia helleri): here.