Duluth native's idea could help save Darwin's Finches

By KBJR News 1

May 26, 2014 Updated May 27, 2014 at 6:05 AM CST

Duluth, MN (NNCNOW.com) - A famous group of bird species has a Duluth native to thank for helping save it from a grim fate.

Darwin's Finches, studied by famed researcher Charles Darwin, are a group of several bird species on the Galapagos Islands.

The birds had been dying from a parasite laid in their nests by flies. It was known that a mild insecticide could kill the parasites, but it was hard for researchers to get to the nests and apply the insecticide without disturbing them.

Then, Duluth native and University of Utah researcher, Sarah Knutie, had an idea.

"Female Darwin's Finches were coming to my laundry line and grabbing frayed fibers off of the laundry line," said Knutie, who had been studying the Finches in the Galapagos as part of her dissertation, "[I thought] I wonder if I could spray cotton balls with this mild insecticide, present the cotton balls to the finches and allow them to take the cotton back to their nests and essentially kill the parasites themselves."

Her idea worked. The researchers found that the insecticide-treated cotton lowered the number of parasites in the Finches' nests.

While Knutie says this is a short–term solution, it is progress in what biologists say could become a very serious problem.

"Very unique organisms live there [the Galapagos Islands] that aren't found any place else on earth," said University of Minnesota Duluth biology professor, Dr. Timothy Craig, "It would be a real loss in a lot of ways if we lose one of those species."

Knutie is nearing the end of her PhD work at the University of Utah and has a job at the University of South Florida as a post–doctoral researcher.

She hopes to one day be a professor.

Jennifer Austin

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