Saving Darwin’s Finches fromExtinction

Galápagos Islands Finches

Falk professors, Margaret Voss and Rick Welsh, are studying the impact of the P. downsi parasite on the Galápagos Islands finches, and working to find ecologically sound ways to control the parasite. 

Close-up of a researcher taking measurements of a baby finch with a ruler
Photos courtesy of Margaret Voss

The Galápagos Islands, once remote and sparsely inhabited, their volcanic vistas home to exotic plants and unique wildlife, have become a highly popular vacation destination. Each year, thousands of people, sightseers, and those who work in businesses that cater to the tourist trade visit the islands or go to live there. Sometimes uninvited—and unwelcome—guests, in the form of invasive species that attack and supplant native populations, come too. One of the most devastating is Philornis downsi (P. downsi), an avian parasite fly native to mainland Ecuador and Brazil. During its life cycle, the parasite literally sucks the blood out of its host population—in this case, the fledglings of a group of bird species collectively known as Darwin’s finches, named for scientist Charles Darwin, who first identified them in 1835.

The fly, now present on 15 of the 17 largest Galápagos islands, is having a catastrophic effect on the avian population, according to Margaret Voss, Falk College professor of practice in the nutrition program. “The most heavily impacted species is the mangrove finch, followed by the medium tree finch,” says Voss, whose research interests are in ecosystem health and food availability. “Nestling mortality from parasitism can be as high as 100 percent in some finch species.”

The lush, rural landscape of the Galápagos Islands

Voss and her Falk College colleague, Professor Rick Welsh, are co-principal investigators leading a team of research scientists from Syracuse University, SUNY ESF, and the Charles Darwin Foundation. They are studying the impact of P. downsi on the Galápagos Islands finches, and working to find ecologically sound ways to control the parasite. Because the birds nest in the Galápagos National Park, an area in which the application of pesticides is prohibited, other methods must be found to kill the flies.

Fertilizer application is also prohibited in the arable areas bordering the park, negatively impacting local farmers, who have a hard time earning a living. An expert in food and agricultural policy, Welsh advises the research team on sustainable agriculture practices, land use, and conservation issues. “We need to develop a management plan based on our best available research to allow local people to continue to live there—as they have for a long time—while preserving their natural resources and taking advantage of the international interest in the islands,” he says. “There needs to be an equilibrium between tourism, farming, and other means of livelihood on the islands, in such a way as to protect wildlife, yet still allowing human activity.”

If the birds are going to survive and support healthy populations, the people who live near them have to have that same balance in life. It doesn’t work any other way. There are so many pieces to this puzzle.

—Margaret Voss

Voss, who plans a second trip to the islands in spring 2018, stresses the team’s goal of finding answers to the challenging issues facing the people and wildlife there. “If the birds are going to survive and support healthy populations, the people who live near them have to have that same balance in life. It doesn’t work any other way,” she says. “There are so many pieces to this puzzle. We are motivated to put the pieces together in a way that works for everyone.”

To continue their research, the team is actively seeking funding from conservation and non-governmental organizations. Given the alarmingly high nestling mortality among the finches, the researchers realize they are in a race against time to find solutions to the parasite infestation, before it is too late to save the birds. “I’ve worked on a lot of environmental problems that were very serious, but nothing this dramatic,” Welsh says. “We don’t have very much time to figure out what will work to fix the problem. If the issue isn’t solved soon, a species will become extinct.”

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Paula Meseroll

This story was first published on March 1, 2018 and last updated on . It also appeared as “Saving Darwin’s Finches” in the Fall/Winter 2017 issue of Syracuse University Magazine.


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