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Biol Lett. 2010 Apr 23;6(2):212-5. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2009.0778. Epub 2009 Nov 18.

Saving Darwin's muse: evolutionary genetics for the recovery of the Floreana mockingbird.

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  • 1Zoological Museum, University of Zurich, Winterthurerstrasse 190, 8057 Zurich, Switzerland.


The distribution of mockingbird species among the Galápagos Islands prompted Charles Darwin to question, for the first time in writing, the 'stability of species'. Some 50 years after Darwin's visit, however, the endemic Floreana mockingbird (Mimus trifasciatus) had become extinct on Floreana Island and, today, only two small populations survive on two satellite islets. As Darwin noted, rarity often precedes extinction. To avert extinction, plans are being developed to reintroduce M. trifasciatus to Floreana. Here, we integrate evolutionary thinking and conservation practice using coalescent analyses and genetic data from contemporary and museum samples, including two collected by Darwin and Robert Fitzroy on Floreana in 1835. Our microsatellite results show substantial differentiation between the two extant populations, but our coalescence-based modelling does not indicate long, independent evolutionary histories. One of the populations is highly inbred, but both harbour unique alleles present on Floreana in 1835, suggesting that birds from both islets should be used to establish a single, mixed population on Floreana. Thus, Darwin's mockingbird specimens not only revealed to him a level of variation that suggested speciation following geographical isolation but also, more than 170 years later, return important information to their place of origin for the conservation of their conspecifics.

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