Darwin's finches

A Short History On The Famous Darwin’s Finches

1 year ago Galapagos

The origin of species  is English scientist Charles Darwin’s most influential work. It has played an integral role in evolutionary theory and our understanding of different species and the way they’ve adapted to their environment over the course of millennia.  Just as remarkable as the theory of evolution  is the manner in which it was conceived. As it turns out, Darwin owes a great deal to a group of tiny birds which have since been named after him. When he first sailed the Galapagos Islands, Darwin collected specimens of the animals which he came across. Among these were Darwin’s Finches – birds which he thought little of at the time, but after more research, they’d play a pivotal role in helping him prove his theory of natural selection.


Here’s all you need to know about these incredible birds.


Not true finches

During his 5-week long stop in the Galapagos Islands, Darwin initially mistook the Galapagos finches to be mainland finches, blackbirds, or mockingbirds. After all, they looked incredibly similar in size and color. Upon return to England, he sought the help of John Gould, a celebrated ornithologist, who instead identified the birds as 12 completely new and different species, endemic to the Galapagos Islands. In fact, they weren’t even true finches – despite the name, Darwin’s Finches have been argued to be part of the Tanager family. This was such a groundbreaking discovery at the time that it made the newspapers.


Over the years, scientists have pondered over how these birds got to the Galapagos Islands. In 1982, David Steadman proposed the idea that the dull-colored grassquit, found in mainland South America, is the likeliest direct ancestor of the discovered finches. Another study in 2001 argued that the yellow-faced grassquits (Tiaris) or Melanospiza Richardsoni originating from the Caribbean are closer matches.


Overall, the lack of fossils available for study means there is no conclusive evidence of the first finches’ appearance on the Galapagos Islands. There’s likely an equal probability of their origin being from South America or the Caribbean.


Im-peck-able evolution

What separates Darwin’s Finches from their mainland lookalikes is their beaks. They’re known for their remarkably diverse beak form and function, evolved to suit the different food types available across the islands. From seeds and fruits to invertebrates and even blood, their widely varied beak shapes and sizes have allowed each species to occupy different niches of the islands. Evidence of this adaptation has played a significant role in helping justify Darwin’s theory of evolution.


Today, there are between 13 to 18 discovered Galapagos finches. The green and gray warbler finches are one of the smallest species and have one of the thinnest beaks to prod for insects. On the other hand, ground finches have large, stout beaks which are good for seed-crushing. Cactus finches have long, pointed beaks to extract seeds from their preferred cactus fruit.


Vampire finch, one of Darwin's finches, perched on a branch


Notably, there is a species of Darwin’s finches, dubbed as vampire finches due to their inclination to drink blood to supplement their diet when seeds are scarce. Not to worry though, these birds only drink the blood of other birds and not humans. They’re also exclusively found on only two of the islands – Wolf and Darwin.


Aboard our Galapagos cruise – Aqua Mare, guests can look forward to sighting these little winged creatures amongst other charming wildlife during our 7-night or 14-night sailings across the Galapagos Islands. They may be a tad flighty owing to their anti-predatory nature but you can always look to our experienced naturalist guides for assistance.


Threats to their existence


Varying between 4 to 8 inches in size and a mere 8 to 38 grams in weight, the Galapagos finches make for easy prey. Over time, they have become wary of human contact and started seeing people as a threat. The continued venture of people to the Galapagos Islands has also given rise to numerous predators such as cats, rats, and most damaging of all: the Philorni Downsi, an invasive bird-parasitic fly.


This, combined with diseases and the destruction of their natural habitat, has led to a decline in population for some species of Darwin’s Finches. In fact some of them, such as the mangrove finch and medium tree finch, are now critically endangered. 


One of Darwin's finches perched on a bench

Credits: Cayambe


To help protect these incredible species of birds, The Galapagos Conservation Trust (GCT) supports the Mangrove Finch Project, one of the largest conservation efforts attempted on any human-populated island. This project attempts to eliminate the finch’s invasive predators such as the parasitic Philorni Donwsi.


Discover the Galapagos Finches and other vibrant wildlife with our knowledgeable naturalist guides aboard our superyacht, Aqua Mare.