Darwin's specimens help conservation today

To try and rescue the mockingbird Mimus trifasciatus from extinction, a partnership has been formed between:

  • The Charles Darwin Foundation 
  • Galápagos National Park

With the endorsement of the government of Ecuador, they aim to reintroduce the bird to Floreana.

Developing the best reintroduction strategy

Paquita Hoeck and Lukas Keller of the Zoological Museum of the University of Zurich have been working with the CDF and GNP to assess the genetic diversity of all Galápagos mockingbirds, focussing on the Floreana mockingbird in particular. This will help inform the reintroduction strategy.

To maximise the reintroduced birds' chance of survival, it is important to:

  • restore the natural habitat on Floreana (currently underway)
  • maximise the genetic diversity of the new population

It is also desirable to restore the ecosystem of Floreana as close as possible to its original state.

Analysing Darwin's specimen

To understand more about the recent evolutionary history of the species and the extinct Floreana population, the 2 specimens that were collected on Floreana during the voyage of HMS Beagle were of great interest. One of these, now the type specimen of the species, was collected by Darwin, the other by Captain Fitzroy.

In support of the reintroduction project, the Museum's Bird Group (based at the Natural History Museum at Tring) granted access to and dissected small samples from the foot pads of both specimens. 

These were then sent to Lukas Keller and Paquita Hoeck for analysis. Karen James in the Museum's Botany Department replicated the experiment using duplicate samples, as a control.

Results and recommendations

DNA analysis has revealed that 1 of the 2 surviving populations on Champion island, though small and inbred, still harbours unique genetic information not found in the larger Gardner-by-Floreana island population but, crucially, present on Floreana island in 1835.

The authors of the study, published in Biology Letters on 18 November 2009, just a week before the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, recommend that birds from both populations should be used to reintroduce a single, mixed population on Floreana.