Couple That Saw Quick Evolution in Darwin's Finches Wins Big Prize

By Allison Bond | June 19, 2009 2:26 pm

The GrantsA husband and wife team that for 35 years has researched finches’ evolutionary responses to environmental changes have won the prestigious Kyoto Prize in the basic sciences category. Peter and Rosemary Grant, both emeritus professors at Princeton University, have studied finches that lives on the Galapagos Islands for decades and will share the $515,000 prize. The Kyoto Prize is a Japanese award similar to the Nobel Prize.

The two evolutionary biologists devoted their careers to furthering Charles Darwin‘s theory of evolution. Both 72, the Grants have been traveling regularly since 1973 to the Galápagos, the remote islands west of Ecuador. There, they have painstakingly recorded the characteristics of numerous varieties of finches [Philadelphia Inquirer]. Darwin stumbled upon these finches during his famous tour of the Galapagos Islands in 1835, later chronicled in his book The Voyage of the Beagle.

The Grants are best known for documenting natural selection in action. Over the course of many years of research in the Galapagos, they demonstrated how, in just a few short generations, the beak size and shape of ground finches (genus Geospiza) transformed as a consequence of the availability of different sized seeds, which fluctuates with the varying levels of rainfall caused by the El Nino-Southern Oscillation. That study, published in Ecology in 1996, was cited more than 85 times [The Scientist].

Darwin examined the minor differences between the finch species found on different islands in the Galapagos archipelago, and wrote that it appeared that “from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.” The Grants built on this basic definition of evolution by showing that changes in weather initiated sharp changes in the types of seeds and other food available…. Birds with different beak sizes were more or less able to eat the food at hand. Those that could eat survived to reproduce – and over the centuries, the natural variations in beaks became some of the characteristics that distinguish one species from another [Philadelphia Inquirer]. The couple also authored a book, How and Why Species Multiply: The Radiation of Darwin’s Finches, a narration of their experiences while working in the Galapagos.

The Kyoto Prize also awards in the categories of arts and philosophy, and advanced technology. All three prizes will be presented in Kyoto this November.

Related Content:
80beats: Darwin’s Anti-Slavery Views May Have Guided His Theory of Evolution
80beats: On the Galapagos Islands, an Evolutionary Puzzle That Darwin Missed
80beats: Careful Crossbreeding Could Resurrect Extinct Galapagos Tortoise

Image: Princeton University

  • jon

    too bad there’s no dna sequence change involved in the finches beaks. too bad. too bad…it could have been so great for darwinism.

  • David

    What the Grant’s observed is micro-evolution/natural selection not macro-evolution. Look around at all the people groups around the world some have big beeks and some litlle beeks but they are are all human beings.

  • Jo

    You know, I was out walking the other day, and I found myself at the bottom of a steep ridge leading up to an escarpment. And after taking only a few steps up that hill, I of course had to stop. If only it were possible to continue taking those little steps — what a great view I could have enjoyed from the top of the escarpment! Alas, we all know it impossible to climb a slope with many small steps. Walking just doesn’t apply to long distances. That’s why we designed helicopters.

  • Bill Rohan Sr

    “The Beak of the Finch” by Jonathan Weiner tells the history of the Grant’s project and the story of their experiences.

  • Zuri

    The Galapagos Islands are the most incredible living museum of evolutionary changes, with a huge variety of exotic species (birds, land animals, plants) and landscapes not seen anywhere else.

  • Plum Martin

    The Grants are amazing scientists and human beings. Kudos to them and their incredible work. What a blessing they are to all of us!

  • Mandy

    hi everyone.. I need to do an essay on the galapagos flinches, the question is: Discuss how the flinches came to have different beak shapes.

    Does anyone have any facts or something that could help me?
    Thanks (:

  • http://---- Phil Doran

    The Vampire Finch ( Geospiza difficilis septentrionalis) is an interesting bird.

    Watch out for the evolution of the Vampire Sparrow!


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