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