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Darwin’s Finches Could Be Extinct in 50 Years

posted: 12/18/15
by: Danny Clemens
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A parasitic fly could push Darwin's finches to the brink of extinction within a matter of decades, according to newly published research from the University of Utah.

The parasitic nest fly (Philornis downsi) has decimated finch populations in the Galapagos Islands since it was first introduced in the late 1960s. P. downsi larvae nest in bird nests, feeding on the flesh of finch nestlings and throttling the birds' ability to successfully reproduce.

A research team spent five years investigating finch reproduction on Santa Cruz Island and mapping out population trends. Based on their observations, the team then constructed mathematical simulations to determine how long bird populations could survive in the face of larvae infestation.

Medium ground finch
Laura Gooch/Flickr

In a worst-case scenario, the finches could be extinct in as little fast 50 years. The good news, however, is that human intervention could save the beloved birds -- a 40% reduction in fly-infested nests would be enough to save the finches.

Researchers have identified a variety of ways to combat the fly infestation, including hand-rearing finch chicks outside of infested nests, introducing sterile male flies to inhibit fly reproduction and using insecticides to wipe out existing fly populations.

It is also possible that a "rapid evolutionary response by the birds" could occur, study lead author and U-Utah biology professor Dale Clayton explains in a news release.

"Their immune systems [could] rapidly develop the ability to combat the fly. That happens in other animals. The question is, will these finches have enough time to develop effective defenses before they are driven to extinction by the fly? It's an arms race."

Clayton's research is published in the December 18 edition of the Journal of Applied Ecology.

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