Utah researchers help Galapagos birds self-fumigate their nests

Posted at 9:45 PM, May 11, 2014
and last updated 2014-05-11 23:45:22-04

SALT LAKE CITY – Students at the University of Utah have discovered a method that will allow endangered birds to protect their young from deadly parasites.

A research group from the school was in the Galapagos Islands recently, where they put their unorthodox method of animal preservation to the test.

Sarah Knutie, a graduate student at the U of U studying biology and co-author of the new study that was published May 5 in the journal “Current Biology”, said the famous Galapagos finches, the focus of much of Darwin’s work on natural selection, were losing their young to a parasitic fly.

She said inspiration struck as she was watching the birds gather cotton fibers from her laundry line to use in their nests.

She said: "And so I thought, 'Hmm, I wonder if we could spray cotton balls with a mild insecticide, give it to the finches and they essentially can bring it back to their nests and kill the parasites themselves.’"

Knuties team built a set-up that allows the birds to gather treated cotton for use in their nests, and the process is called self-fumigation.

Dale Clayton, a biology professor at the U of U involved in the study, said Knutie was determined.

“My job was to say, ‘It'll never work,’” Clayton said. “So she went out and proved me wrong and did, and so now we have a method.”

Knutie said she had her doubts at first.

"I was surprised that it even worked,” she said. “I mean, this was a crazy idea that I thought, well, you know, we need some way of controlling the fly, and let's try it. Let's see if this crazy idea works, and it did."

The researchers report that birds who used 1 gram of the treated cotton killed 100 percent of the parasites. The parasites are not native to the area and only came to the Galapagos Islands in the late 90s.

"The flies have not been historically in the Galapagos, and so the birds have not evolved defenses against them,” Dale said.

Now, with a published study in hand, the researchers hope they will be able to employ their findings to save even more birds.

“There's a species of bird called the mangrove finch, which has less than 80 individuals left in the population, which makes them the most critically endangered species of bird in the world,” Knutie said. “…many species of birds incorporate human trash and human items into their nests, so this is not a method or approach that is restricted to the Galapagos. It could be used for other species of birds as well."