Exactly two-hundred years ago today on
12th February 1809 one of the founding fathers of evolutionary
theory, Charles Darwin, was born in Shrewsbury, United Kingdom.
To this day his thoughts on how life on earth evolved influence
our daily lives, not least here at CMS. Charles Darwin certainly
thought at length about animal migration, often considering
creatures whose instinct to disperse had taken them to places
from which they did not return. Their isolation then caused
them to evolve into different forms, adapted to local conditions.
The finches which Darwin encountered when visiting the Galapagos
Islands during his journeys aboard the Beagle in the 1830s
are the classic example. However, this evolution by natural
selection certainly continues to operate in populations
of animals that migrate “cyclically and predictably”,
to use the wording of the CMS. Among them, the birds offer
some fascinating examples.
CMS Appointed Councillor for Birds, John O'Sullivan, explains
that “In the case of the Northern Wheatear, a migratory
songbird in the thrush family, the populations that make
the longest annual journeys have the longest wings. Such
differences between populations may mark a stage on the
way to the birds becoming separate species. Two very similar-looking
migratory Eurasian birds, the Willow Warbler and the Chiffchaff,
are believed, from genetic studies, to have had a recent
common ancestor. Now, however, the species have different
migration strategies. European Chiffchaffs move shorter
distances to winter, typically in North Africa, and have
shorter wings. European Willow Warblers have longer wings,
and travel south of the Sahara to winter. This is evolution
Such changes take millennia to evolve. Unfortunately, the
speed with which humans are changing the world, either deliberately
or accidentally, gives little chance for such species to
adapt. So there is a good reason for the international community,
through instruments like CMS and its Agreements, to protect
species along their migration routes. Their feeding and
resting habitats can be kept free of artificial obstructions,
and protected from unsustainable exploitation and other
threats. In such a way, we give migratory species a chance
to survive, and go on evolving. It seems very likely that
Darwin would have approved.
To commemorate Darwin’s 200th birthday, the Museum
Koenig in Bonn (Germany), a close neighbour partner organisation
of the CMS Secretariat is launching a new exhibition and
lecture series on “Darwin and the origin of species”.
This new exhibition will highlight and explain exactly how
Darwin was inspired to develop his theory of natural selection,
which species he encountered on his journeys to solve this
riddle and just how crucial this bedrock of theory is for
science and conservation today.
CMS Executive Secretary, Robert Hepworth, hopes that the
bicentenary celebrations will encourage scientists throughout
the world to continue developing the scientific base on
which CMS and conservation programmes everywhere are built.
He said “Darwin is a role model for all those who
discover and disseminate new truths from science, and more
importantly sets an example for good behaviour in research.
A true son of Shrewsbury, he is often misquoted or misunderstood.
Yet his core discoveries have been largely vindicated by
modern research, particularly through genetic analysis.
My favourite quote from Darwin also seems particularly opposite
in the present dilemmas faced by the human species: It is
not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the
most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the
most adaptable to change.”
Link to lecture series at Museum Koenig: