A Darwin Finch On Brink of Extinction Gets Head Start from Conservation Experts

[dcwsb inline="true"]

San Diego Zoo Global logoA unique head-start program has dramatically increased a critically endangered mangrove finch population by 25% during the last month. The captive breeding program, conducted by San Diego Zoo Global in partnership with the Galápagos National Park Directorate (GNPD) on Puerto Ayora, Ecuador, is part of a long-term plan to save the critically endangered bird species. The program, done in collaboration with the Charles Darwin Foundation, focuses on a finch made famous by the naturalist for which it is named.

“The support of the Charles Darwin Foundation and San Diego Zoo Global is extremely important due to the geographical scale of the problem we face with this species,” said Lorena Tapia, minister of environment, Galápagos National Park. “Collaborative efforts are required for the conservation of a species that is seriously affected by habitat change.”

There are currently estimated to be only 60 to 80 individuals of the mangrove finch species left in existence.  The entire population is restricted to a tiny range of less than 74 acres in two patches of mangrove forest on the west coast of Isabela Island in the Galápagos Islands. The tiny species has never before been reared in a captive environment. As part of the program to increase the species’ population, 21 eggs and three newly hatched chicks were collected from wild nests in the mangrove forest on Isabela. The eggs and chicks were brought to a newly created propagation center where they were artificially incubated and are currently being hand-reared.

“After three years of planning and despite many challenges, we are thrilled with the achievements in every step of the process: collection of the eggs, incubation and hand-rearing in captivity,” said Francesca Cunninghame, Charles Darwin Foundation scientist responsible for the project. “Each success is a result of great teamwork between the Zoo and GNPD and represents a milestone for the recovery of the mangrove finch wild population. The reintroduction of the youngsters back into the wild will be our next big challenge.”

The finches of the Galápagos Islands were made famous by Charles Darwin in the 1800s and formed part of the inspiration for many of his theories. The Darwin finch is the most endangered of all these species, classified as critically endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. The tiny chicks require round-the-clock care with at least 15 feedings a day. San Diego Zoo Global became part of this unique project due to its experience hand-rearing similar species.

“The San Diego Zoo team is very excited to collaborate in this critically important project to prevent the extinction of the mangrove finch. In our breeding centers in San Diego and Hawaii, we have developed techniques to raise very small insectivorous birds,” said Richard Switzer, associate director of applied animal ecology for San Diego Zoo Global. “Being able to share these skills for the conservation of Galápagos’ biodiversity is a wonderful opportunity.”

The main threat to the mangrove finch is the Philornis downsi fly. This fly lays its eggs in the nests of finches and leaving its larvae to parasitize nestlings. The fly is largely responsible for a high mortality rate in the species in recent years. By removing the eggs and chicks for hand-rearing in a protected environment, conservationists hope to give the individual birds a “head-start” before releasing them back into the wild. Once they are released back into the mangrove forest, the young birds will be closely monitored by conservationists.

“This is not the first time we have received the contribution from the San Diego Zoo,” said Arturo Izurieta, GNPD director. “Several decades ago, we also had its support in our conservation work, in the efforts to recover the Española Island tortoise species, and the Charles Darwin Foundation has been our strategic partner in scientific research for over 50 years.”

The Mangrove Finch Project is funded by Save Our Species, the International Community Foundation (with a grant awarded by the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust), Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and Galápagos Conservancy. San Diego Zoo Global provides technical expertise and funding. Several private individuals have also contributed.