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Finches key to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution at risk

ESF researches solution.

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The Mangrove finch, one of the finches on the Galapagos Islands that helped Charles Darwin develop his theory of evolution, is at risk of extinction from an introduced invasive species of fly.

Thirteen species of finches are found only on the Galapagos Islands. The fly, similar to a common housefly, is found in >90% of finch nests and is parasitic in the larval stage, feeding on the blood of the baby finches.

SUNY-ESF professor Dr. Melissa Fierke, along with graduate student, Warren Hellman, will travel to the Galapagos Islands Feb. 22 where they will work with other scientists at the Charles Darwin Research Institute on a program to eliminate the parasites.

"I think Darwin's finches, in particular, are iconic. They were an integral part of how Darwin's theory of evolution developed," Fierke said.

To get rid of the problematic flies, Fierke said they plan to rear flies under lab conditions, sterilize a large number of males so they can't reproduce, and release these to mate with female flies. The procedure has been successfully used to eradicate the screwworm fly in the southern U.S.

Feb. 12, 2009 was the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth.