Research project could lead to evolution re-think - University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

Accessibility links

USC News

Research project could lead to evolution re-think

21 May 2018

USC researcher is working to shed new light on the role animal culture plays in the evolution of new species.

USC behavioural and evolutionary biologist Dr Dominique Potvin is part of an international collaboration studying the birdsongs of descendants of the finches on the Galapagos Islands that helped shaped Charles Darwin’s famous theory of natural selection.

“We believe the birdsongs of these finches may hold the key to understanding the evolution of animal culture – language and song – to the same level as genetics,” said Dr Potvin, who is based at USC’s Fraser Coast campus.

In 1835, Darwin investigated the incredible diversity in beak shapes among the 15 species of a sub-family of finches living on the islands, with the birds becoming textbook example of how species adapt to new environments.

“Researchers recently opened up a unique research opportunity when they sequenced the genomes of Darwin’s finches to pinpoint the genetic basis for the diversity of the birds’ beaks,” Dr Potvin said.

“Now that we know exactly how each species is related genetically, and which genes are adapting fastest according to environmental changes, we can investigate for the first time how their culture – their leaned language or song – has also changed.”

Earlier this year, Dr Potvin explored the Galapagos Archipelago, off Ecuador, to record the birds singing their dawn chorus.

“I recorded the songs of 10 out of the 15 species of Darwin’s finches across three different islands from a variety of habitats including lava-rock strewn arid zones, to beaches near the oceans and near the tops of volcanoes in the highlands,” she said.

The data gathered by the USC-funded field trip will be used to compare the differences in song for the various species to their genetic variations, to understand whether culture and genetics follow the same evolutionary processes.

“In a practical sense, this research will also help us understand the level of adaptive flexibility that some animals might have in an ever-changing environment,” she said.

“If culture turns out to be much more amenable to change, it might mean that it can contribute to the survival of species more so than genetic evolution.”

It could be some time before the findings are completed, said Dr Potvin, who is planning to return to the Galapagos Islands to study the finches living on the more isolated islands.

In the meantime, she will work with her international research partners to analyse the data gathered from the initial field trip.

“This is the first study of its kind and my colleagues and I are realizing the ambitiousness and grand scale of this very exciting research.”

- Clare McKay

Galapagos Island  ground finch

Related articles

USC Marine biologist Dr Bonnie Holmes
Shark researcher brings expertise to USC
1 Apr

A USC marine biologist researching shark ecology along Australia’s east coast plans to expand her focus to address a gap in knowledge of shark movements and behaviours in the Wide Bay region.

USC Fraser Coast student Olivia Hay
USC student’s research offers solution to festival drug use
23 Mar

Research by USC Fraser Coast Business student Olivia Hay on illicit drug use at music festivals has been showcased by one of Australia’s peak social marketing bodies.

USC Journalism student Liam Bland from interning at the ABC studios in Maroochydore
Info evening about Headstart program
12 Mar

Senior high school students in the Fraser Coast region wanting an early start to their local university journey can get face-to-face advice from USC Fraser Coast staff and students on Thursday 19 March.

Contact the USC media team

Name Position Email Phone
Terry Walsh Manager, Media and Messaging +61 7 5430 1160
Janelle Kirkland Media Relations Coordinator +61 7 5459 4553
Clare McKay Media Relations Officer (Regional) +61 7 5456 5669

Search results for

Recent news