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Theory of evolution and the beak of the finch - Jonathan Weiner, 1995

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  1. The finches in the Galapagos study
  2. The finches' beak and the type of seeds
  3. The influence of the environment on the population
  4. Evolutionary changes
  5. Endler's experiment
  6. Examples of rapid evolution

When we imagine the process of evolution, we tend to picture it as an extremely slow, gradual process. It takes millions of years for some frog to change colors and camouflage to its surroundings, and it takes just as long for a fish to improve its structure and achieve the maneuverability necessary to escape its many predators. Often, non-scientists and scientists alike view evolution as a slow and difficult process to measure that one life time is often not nearly enough to measure any significant change in a species. In his book "The Beak of the Finch", Jonathan Weiner disputes this notion and describes a long term research project that involved studying finches in the Galapagos Islands. In the project, headed by Peter and Rosemary Grant, the beaks and other measurements of Darwin's finches are meticulously recorded and compared from year to year. After over two decades of analysis, the results prove to be astounding and remarkably supportive of Darwin's theory.

[...] Evolution had run as fast in the wild as in the greenhouse (Weiner 95). Evidently, finches are not the only species that can evolve quickly and after only a few generations. Natural selection can play a significant role, and it can sometimes act much faster than we might imagine. Another example of quick evolution occurring over only a few generations occurred with the use of pesticides such as DDT on insect and moth populations. This pesticide, as well as other more poisonous ones, were used in an effort to destroy moths and other insects. [...]

[...] On the islands of Daphne Major and other Galapagos islands, evolution within the finches is a quick and constant process. It is never gradual and significant changes can occur after only a few generations. Changes in the environment?especially major disturbances like excessive rain or drought?can alone determine which of the birds will survive and which will die out, a perfect demonstration of natural selection. Excessive rain can result in major increases to the finch population by significantly increasing the food supply, however these populations can quickly crash once the rains stop and the plants begin to die out. [...]

[...] The beak of a finch does not gradually become larger and larger as the centuries unfold. A species can take a rapid dive in one direction, and when the environment changes, the process can flip and reverse itself, creating various species along the way and giving us a view of evolution that is much less organized and much more difficult to classify. Some may view this evolutionary pattern of the finch as an anomaly and argue that other animals follow more consistent, slower, and more predictable patterns of evolutionary change. [...]

[...] The Grants carefully observed these birds for many years and found that the changing environment had drastic effects on each species of bird and its likeliness to survive. Most of the finches studied in the Galapagos, mainly on the island of Daphne Major, differ based on their body size and the structure and size of their beaks. Appendix A (pg. 41) presents us with a drawing that allows us to distinguish the different types of ground finches, which include the Geospiza fortis, the Geospia magnirostris, and the Geospirza difficilis. [...]

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