Darwin had Galapagos finches. Norway has… house sparrows?

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The different species of Galapagos finches, with their specially evolved beaks that allow them to eat specific foods, helped Charles Darwin understand that organisms can evolve over time to better survive in their environment.

Now, nearly 200 years later and thousands of miles away, biologists are learning some surprising lessons about evolution from northern Norwegian populations of the humble house sparrow (Passer domesticus).

Darwin’s finches evolved on the exotic, volcanic Galapagos Islands. NTNU’s house sparrows are dispersed over a group of 18 islands in Helgeland, in an archipelago that straddles the Arctic Circle.

Every summer since 1993, when NTNU Professor Bernt-Erik Sæther initiated the House Sparrow Project, a group of biologists has travelled to the islands collect data on the sparrows. They capture baby birds, measure different parts of their bodies, take a tiny blood sample, and then put a unique combination of coloured rings on their legs that help researchers identify the birds throughout their lifetime.

Those decades of research have given researchers information that can be helpful in managing threatened and endangered species. They have also done some experiments where they made evolution happen in real time — and then watched what happened when they let nature run its course.

And then there was the series of experiments where they learned more than you might want to know about sparrow dating preferences, and about rogue sparrow fathers who court exhausted sparrow mothers — and then fathered children with the cute little she-bird next door.

Our guests for today’s show were Henrik Jensen, Thor Harald Ringsby and Stefanie Muff.

You can find a transcript of the show here.

Selected academic and popular science articles:

From NTNU’s online research magazine, Norwegian SciTech News:

Why aren’t house sparrows as big as geese?

Inbreeding detrimental for survival

Why house sparrows lay big and small eggs

On Darwin

Darwin, Charles (1859) On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London: J. Murray.

Weiner, J. (2014). The beak of the finch: A story of evolution in our time. Random House.

Sulloway, F. J. (1982). Darwin and his finches: The evolution of a legend. Journal of the History of Biology, 15, 1-53.

Sulloway, F. J. (1982). Darwin's conversion: the Beagle voyage and its aftermath. Journal of the History of Biology, 15, 325-396.

Academic articles from the House Sparrow Project:



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