Canadian who studies finches and fish wins one of science’s top prizes

Canadian who studies finches and fish wins one of science’s top prizes

If It Happens6:43Canadian studying finches and fish wins one of science’s top prizes

Dolph Schluter is fascinated by the origin of species, whether it’s the famous finches of the Galapagos or the “humble” threespine stickleback of British Columbia.

The University of British Columbia (UBC) zoologist has spent his career studying how new species arise. Now he is being honored with one of science’s most prestigious awards, the Crafoord Prize in Bioscience.

“I’m still getting used to it,” Schluter, a professor of zoology at UBC’s Biodiversity Research Center, told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

“We all want to be recognized for the work we do, I suppose, but … it’s so far off the radar, it completely caught me off guard.”

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awards the Crafoord Prize for disciplines it does not consider for the Nobels, including biosciences, geosciences and mathematics. Schluter’s win comes with a prize of about $780,000 to fund further research in his field.

“Dr. Schluter’s contributions have been enormously influential,” Ove Eriksson, chair of the award committee for the Crafoord Prize in Biosciences, said in a UBC press release. “We consider Dr. Schluter to be the leader in ecological studies on the origin of species over the past four decades.”

What finches and fish teach us about evolution

Schluter’s body of research focuses on two main themes: the origin of species and adaptive radiation, the latter of which he defines as “the rapid production of a bunch of species that do different things [and] to exploit the environment in different ways.”

The classic example, he says, is Charles Darwin’s Galapagos finches – a group of more than a dozen birds on the Galapagos Islands that are thought to have evolved from a single species.

Despite their common origin, the birds have a remarkable variation in characteristics, which in part inspired Darwin’s foundational theory of evolution.

“Across the tree of life, it is estimated that it takes an average of about two million years to get two new species that have one common ancestor,” Schluter said. “In the Galapagos finches, that process is sped up. It’s on the order of 100,000 years.”

Schluter studied the evolution of Galapagos finches. (Shutterstock)

Some of Schluter’s earliest work looked at exactly how that famous example of evolution played out.

While studying the finches, Schluter found that the differences in beaks were often more pronounced between species that lived on the same island than they were between finches that lived on different islands.

This means that the finches evolved partly in response to competitive interaction, rather than simply through geographic isolation.

Beak size plays an important role in determining what kind of seeds the birds can eat. And birds that didn’t have to compete for the same food source had a better chance of surviving and breeding.

This is what is known as speciation – evolution by natural selection, rather than by accumulation of random mutations.

“Dolph Schluter’s studies allowed him to prove that Darwin’s well-founded ideas about speciation actually occur in nature in the right circumstances,” Kerstin Johannesson, a professor of marine ecology and member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, said in said a statement. Press release.

The threespine stickleback is a marine fish that colonized several lakes in BC, creating several branches of evolution. (Justas in the Wild/Shutterstock)

These days, Schluter has shifted his attention from feathers to scales.

His current research revolves around the three-muscle stickleback, a marine fish that repeatedly colonized freshwater lakes in BC and thereby created different branches of evolution.

Each of the BC lakes where sticklebacks are found each has two species of the fish, Schluter said. And in any case, they are found nowhere else in the world.

But what makes them so interesting to Schluter is that the lakes themselves are only about 10,000 to 15,000 years old — a blink of an eye, in evolutionary terms. This means these fish are “among the youngest species on Earth in anything.”

“If you want to study the origin of species, it’s best to catch it as it happens. And, you know, that’s possible with these fish because it all happened so quickly, so recently.”

Schluter conducts research on three-muscle echinoderms in BC (Marius Roesti/

Just like the finches before them, the freshwater fish have acquired different characteristics than their marine counterparts.

And as the generations pass, further differences develop between the fish living in the same lakes. Some have evolved to live exclusively on the bottom of the lake, and others closer to the surface.

“We’ve managed to learn a lot about the origin of species just by working on this fish,” Schluter said.

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