Pioneering evolutionary biologist Rosemary Grant to speak March 12

By: Hugh Powell,  Cornell Chronicle
March 6, 2018

Rosemary Grant and her husband, Peter, stunned the world of evolutionary biology in the 1980s with the discovery of just how quickly natural selection can reshape the physical attributes of animals. 

Grant will speak at Cornell March 12, kicking off the Paul C. Mundinger Distinguished Lectureship with a talk, “Evolution of Darwin’s Finches: Integrating Behavior, Ecology and Genetics.” The event, organized by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is free to the public and starts at 5 p.m. in Call Auditorium, Kennedy Hall. It will also be live-streamed.

Beginning in the 1970s, Grant spent months each year studying finches on a tiny volcanic island called Daphne Major. Camping on an actual desert island is not everyone’s lifestyle choice, but Grant says it’s “magical” being constantly surrounded by “all the huge diversity of life that surrounds you.” And, she adds, “It is nice to have a warm freshwater shower and to eat fresh fruits and vegetables when you return.”

Even after 40 years of study, Grant says, Darwin’s finches still surprise her. Even though there are 15 or so species, she says no single one ranks as her favorite. Instead, “my favorites have been the hybrids because they have revealed so much that was unexpected when we first visited the islands,” she says. One lineage that appeared three decades ago may even be giving rise to a new species, the Grants reported last year.

The Princeton biologist says she will end her talk with a few words of encouragement for young scientists. “For any biologist, or indeed anyone with a passion to follow their own burning questions,” Grant says, “I would say follow your heart. The path will not be smooth but there will be magic in it.”

Paul Mundinger studied the evolution of song and song learning in finches. He worked closely with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in the 1960s. As a professor at Queens College, New York, Mundinger prized teaching and sought to instill in his students an aspirational spirit. The Mundinger Distinguished Lectureship, begun in 2018, honors that spirit by bringing renowned speakers to campus each year.

Read Rosemary Grant’s full interview at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website.

This article originally appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

Rosemary Grant smiles while carrying backpack