Sarah Knutie, University of Utah
Sarah Knutie, University of Utah

Galapagos Birds Beat Bloodsuckers with Pesticide-Lined Homes

Sarah Knutie, University of Utah
Sarah Knutie, University of Utah

In the 1990s, the fly Philornis downsi was accidentally introduced to the Galapagos Islands, probably in a shipment of fruit. The adult flies are harmless enough as invaders go, but their kids are a real problem for the islands’ native birds, some of which are found nowhere else in the world and a few of which are endangered.

The flies lay their eggs in birds’ nests just as the chicks are emerging from their own eggs, and once the larvae hatch, they begin to eat their hosts from both inside and out. No larger than grains of rice, the maggots wriggle their way into the baby birds’ nostrils and eat away at their nasal cavities. As they get larger, the parasites burst back out and continue to live in the nest, hiding by day and emerging each night to suck blood from the chicks. This is often too much for the birds to bear. In some years, the parasites have killed every single chick in a given area and caused every nest to fail. Even if the birds survive, they often have difficulty eating because their beaks are deformed from the larvae that crawled around inside.

Among the birds that the flies maim and kill are Darwin’s finches, a group of 15 related species whose beaks diverged in form as adaptations to their function and were a key piece of evidence for Charles Darwin when he was developing his idea of evolution by natural selection. And even though they’re textbook examples of adaptation, the birds haven’t adapted to the parasites yet because they don’t have a long evolutionary history with them. For now, it falls to scientists to protect them. Conservation biologists have tried treating the nests with insecticides, which increases the number of chicks that survive long enough to fly on their own, and also removing chicks of the most vulnerable species from their nests and raising them in incubators.

Neither of these strategies is inexpensive or easy. Treating the nests is particularly tricky because they’re often hard to find or placed too high in the trees to reach. Now a team of biologists thinks they’ve found a new, more efficient way to do it: lend the birds the insecticides and let them be their own exterminators.

The idea came to University of Utah doctoral student Sarah Knutie as she watched finches come to the laundry lines outside her island dorm and pull threads from clothes and towels to add to their nests. She wondered if the birds would also take fibers that had been treated with permethrin—an insecticide often used in flea collars and lice shampoos—and work them into the nests to “self-fumigate” them.

To find out, Knutie, other students and their advisor Dale Clayton fashioned 30 dispensers out of wire mesh, filled them with either permethrin- or water-soaked cotton, and placed them along a road near nesting sites on Santa Cruz Island.

When the breeding season was over and the baby birds left home, the researchers collected and dissected 26 empty nests built by four different finch species. Twenty-two of the nests contained cotton from the dispensers, and more than half of those contained the insecticide-laced cotton.

The birds were apparently happy to take the dosed cotton, and it paid off for them. The nests with the permethrin cotton in them contained about half as many parasites as the ones that had plain cotton or no cotton at all, and all but one of the nests with a least of a gram of treated cotton—about a thimble's worth—were parasite-free. 

If more cotton dispensers can be installed and maintained, they could make a huge difference for some of the islands’ birds. One of Darwin’s finches, the mangrove finch, has a population of less than 100 birds confined to about a square kilometer of land. It would only take 60 dispensers, Knutie says, to protect the whole population from the flies.

The researchers hope that the same method could be used to protect other birds and nest-building animals against parasites and pests, from Hawaiian honeycreepers dealing with feather lice to prairie dogs that are literally plagued by Yersinia pestis-carrying fleas. Just a little puff of cotton could go a long way in helping these animals help themselves. 

These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years

Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy
5 Fascinating Facts About Koko the Gorilla
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy

After 46 years of learning, making new friends, and challenging ideas about language, Koko the gorilla died in her sleep at her home at the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California on June 21, 2018. Koko first gained recognition in the late 1970s for her ability to use sign language, but it was her friendly personality that made her a beloved icon. Here are five facts you should know about the history-making ape.


Francine "Penny" Patterson, then a graduate student at Stanford University, was looking for an animal subject for her inter-species animal communication experiment in the early 1970s when she found a baby gorilla at the San Francisco Zoo. Originally named Hanabiko (Japanese for "fireworks child," a reference to her Fourth of July birthdate), Koko took to signing quickly. Some of the first words Koko learned in "Gorilla Sign Language," Patterson's modified version of American Sign Language, were "food," "drink," and "more." She followed a similar trajectory as a human toddler, learning the bulk of her words between ages 2.5 and 4.5. Eventually Koko would come to know over 1000 signs and understand about 2000 words spoken to her in English. Though she never got a grasp on grammar or syntax, she was able to express complex ideas, like sadness when watching a sad movie and her desire to have a baby.


Not only did Koko use language to communicate—she also used it in a way that was once only thought possible in humans. Her caretakers have reported her signing about objects that weren't in the room, recalling memories, and even commenting on language itself. Her vocabulary was on par with that of a 3-year-old child.


Koko was the most famous great ape who knew sign language, but she wasn't alone. Michael, a male gorilla who lived with Koko at the Gorilla Foundation from 1976 until his death in 2000, learned over 500 signs with help from Koko and Patterson. He was even able to express the memory of his mother being killed by poachers when he was a baby. Other non-human primates have also shown they're capable of learning sign language, like Washoe the chimpanzee and Chantek the orangutan.


Koko received many visitors during her lifetime, including some celebrities. When Robin Williams came to her home in Woodside, California in 2001, the two bonded right away, with Williams tickling the gorilla and Koko trying on his glasses. But perhaps her most famous celebrity encounter came when Mr. Rogers paid her a visit in 1999. She immediately recognized him as the star of one of her favorite shows, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and greeted him by helping him take off his shoes like he did at the start of every episode.


Koko was never able to have offspring of her own, but she did adopt several cats. After asking for a kitten, she was allowed to pick one from a litter for her birthday in 1985. She named the gray-and-white cat "All Ball" and handled it gently as if it were her real baby, even trying to nurse it. She had recently received two new kittens for her 44th birthday named Ms. Gray and Ms. Black.


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