They are small and cute, for sure, but they usually don’t leave us dumbfounded at first sight. Everyone will get to see at least one, if not several Galapagos finches on their safari vacation, especially at our camp where they like to hop around our dining tables, seeking crumbs.
While they may not be as visually striking as a Magnificent Frigatebird or a Galapagos Hawk, they are equally fascinating, especially when understanding their complexities at an evolutionary level.
First off, they have been central to providing evidence for the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. When Darwin returned to the UK after visiting the Galapagos, he took a number of finch specimens with him, from several of the islands. He soon noticed that there was one obvious differentiation between them. Their beaks were different sizes and shapes. Much like the differing shapes of tortoise shells across the archipelago, the same hypothesis applied. The size and shape of each bill has a direct relationship with the environment they inhabit and the food that that environment provides them.
Some, such as the cactus finches, have evolved to sport long, pointy beaks to help them feed on the flowers of the Opuntia cactus, while others, such as the ground finches have short, thick beaks used for cracking seeds open. The woodpecker and mangrove finches use utensils, such as tiny twigs or cactus spines, to pick out grubs from inside crevices in the tree trunks or branches. And then, there are finches, like the “vampire” finch, on the very isolated Wolf Island of the northernmost latitudes of the archipelago, that uses its sharp, pointy bill to puncture the skin of sea lions’ necks or larger birds’ wings to suck their blood. It has adapted to do this in order to survive, particularly during dry seasons when fresh water is difficult to find.
There are 13 species of ‘Darwin’s finches’ in the Galapagos, or 15 if you include the three species of ground finch (large, medium and small).
Cactus finches, tree finches, warbler finches, ground finches, mangrove and woodpecker finches… There are large, medium and small cactus finches, and large, medium and small tree finches, as well as large, medium and small ground finches, which is a testimony to their scientific complexity.
Scientific name – Common name – Conservation status
(LC = Least Concern, VU = Vulnerable, CR = Critically Endangered)
Certhidea fusca – Grey warbler finch – LC
Certhidea olivacea – Green warbler finch – VU
Geospiza scandens – Common cactus finch – LC
Geospiza conirostris – Espanola cactus finch – VU
Geospiza propinqua – Genovesa Cactus-finch – VU
Geospiza psittacula – Large tree finch – VU
Geospiza pauper – Medium Tree-finch – CR
Geospiza parvula – Small tree finch – LC
Geospiza acutirostris – Genovesa Ground-finch – VU
Geospiza magnirostris – Large ground finch – LC
Geospiza fortis – Medium ground finch – LC
Geospiza fuliginosa – Small ground finch – LC
Geospiza difficilis – Sharp-beaked ground finch (or Vampire finch) – LC
Geospiza heliobates – Mangrove finch – CR
Geospiza pallida – Woodpecker finch – VU
The study of Darwin’s finches is intricate and changing and has taken place for decades without being at all a settled affair. New discoveries are ongoing, such as the fact that only recently ornithologists concluded that there is at least one or two more species on Genovesa Island, bringing the total species count to 17 different Darwin’s finches.
Other researchers, Professors Rosemary and Peter Grant, have been able to actually witness the creation of a new species directly within the field. Evolution, it turns out, can happen very quickly!
In the award-winning book, Beak of the Finch, Jonathan Weiner follows the story behind these scientists and how they came up with a new understanding of life on earth.
In Santa Cruz island, home to Galapagos Safari Camp, there are a total of nine species. It’s a perfect place to begin!
See our Safari Holidays for our suggested Galapagos itineraries and recommended activities.