|Small Galapagos tree finch,|
larval stage parasitizes nestlings.
(a Google image search will provide
some more graphic illustrations)
The question then, is whether the extinction of the large tree finch and the collapse of the boundary between small and medium tree finches can be attributed to the parasite, and the changing selective pressures associated with it. Certainly there were clear changes in size structure (from larger birds to smaller birds) and in recruitment (from few young hybrids to many young hybrids) between the low parasite year (2005) and the high parasite year (2010). Strikingly, parasite loads in nests were much lower for hybrids and smaller-bodied populations than for the larger-bodied population (figure below). Compared to their large-bodied parents, hybrids somehow avoided parasite attack even in years with high parasite densities (2010). When parasite loads are high, hybrid offspring have a fitness advantage, as evidenced by the large number of young hybrids in 2012. The collapse of the large tree finch population is also likely a product of parasite pressures as well, as females selected smaller mates with comparatively lower parasite loads. Despite the apparent importance of the parasites in 2010, the existence of only a few older hybrid individuals, and greater morphological distance between populations seen in the 2005 survey (a low parasite period) suggests that selection for hybrids varies greatly through time. Though the persistence of the Philornis parasite on Floreana may prevent re-establishment of the large tree finch, changing parasite densities and other selective pressures may continue to cause the boundaries of the remaining finch populations to overlap and retract in the future. The story of Darwin's finches is even more interesting if we consider that it doesn't stop at character displacement but continues to this day.
|From Kleindorfer et al 2014: Philornis parasite intensity in nests sampled in 2005 (lower parasite) and 2010/2012 (higher parasite), for nests of the small-bodied (population 1), intermediate hybrid, and larger-bodied (population 2) individuals.|