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The genetic evolution of Darwin’s finches

New analysis discovers new species, source of varied beak shapes

1:00pm, February 11, 2015
Large ground finch

BLUNT BEAK  Changes in a single gene are largely responsible for the blunt beaks of some Darwin’s finches, like this large ground finch (Geospiza magnirostris) from Daphne Major Island in the Galápagos Islands.

Darwin’s finches are once again making scientists rethink evolutionary history. A genetic analysis of the finches reveals three new species. And the birds’ most iconic adaptation, beak shape, is largely controlled by a single gene, researchers report February 11 in Nature. That gene is also known to shape faces in mammals, including humans.

The analysis “is rewriting the taxonomy of these birds, and that’s a pretty big deal,” says Scott Edwards, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University who was not involved in the work. “These birds are the epicenter of evolutionary theory.”

A common ancestor of most of the finches arrived in the Galápagos archipelago about 1.5 million years ago. One other Darwin’s finch species, the Cocos finch (Pinarloxias inornata), lives on Cocos Island off the

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