Bird Beak Lab

Bird Beak Lab Worksheet 2012

team data sheet

island data sheet

Bird Beak Lab description



Charles Darwin observed in his journal that finches living on different Galapagos Islands had different beaks. He also observed that the environment on each of four islands was quite different from the environment on the other three islands; in particular, the type of food available to the finches was different on each island. He developed an hypothesis that the finches had all been the same at one time, (probably blown over from the coast of South America), with some variations in their beaks which made some beak types better adapted to the food on each island and so the birds with those beaks survived and reproduced and the others did not on that particular island with its particular type of food.

These are an example of four different types of beaks found in finches living in the four different islands.



How did all the finches on each different island come to have the same type of beak.

 We are going to perform a simulation experiment of what happened on each of the islands that resulted in the finches on each island having only one type of beak.



Equipment for each 2 students:

1 paper plate (the feeding ground)

1 plastic cup (the stomach)

Food on the plate for one island

Bird seed (Island A)

Raisins (Island B)

Rubber bands (Island C)

Paper clips (Island D)

One of the following tools





1 stopwatch



Students work in teams of two. Each team represents the birds with one of the variations of beak found in the finches which blew over from the coast and therefore uses one of the tools which represent the variations of beak. There are four teams (eight students), each with different beaks (tool) deposited on each separate island. Each island is represented by four identical feeding grounds (paper plates) containing one type of food. Plastic cups represent the bird stomachs. There are four islands with different foods each having four bird teams representing finches having a different beak (tool).*


Each team proceeds as follows;

Each team has one tool, a paper plate with the food available on that island, a paper cup and a stopwatch. One member of the team uses the tool to pick up as much food as possible within 10 seconds and places it into the cup (stomach). The food cannot be touched. The plate and the cup are held steady by the second team member. The teacher uses a stopwatch and announces the start and stop of the feeding (ten seconds). The team members switch places and repeat the feeding placing the additional food in the cup. Then the team measures the amount of food in the cup and records it. The food is returned to the plate.


Record your data on the experiment sheet as follows:



Type of beak


Amount of food


The four teams deposited on the island compare their results and determine the number of birds with each beak in the next generation using the heredity rules;


Type of beak (tool) Amount of food Birds in next generation


Heredity rules;

The bird with the smallest amount of food consumed is declared “starved to death without reproducing”.

The bird with the most food consumed is declared “thriving” and is rewarded with two children with the same beak.

The remaining two birds survive and have one child each with the same beak.


The new generation will consist of two birds (beaks/teams) for the bird eating the most food and declared as thriving, no birds (beaks/teams) for the bird eating the least food and declared starved and one bird for each of the remaining two birds (beaks/teams).


Repeat the feeding event with each new generation until it is clear which type of beak (tool) will dominate on this island.


Some questions for the students.


What role do you think natural selection plays in the evolution of man and other organisms?


Are there other things involved in evolution?


Why do you think there are so many different kinds of dogs?



Birds’ beaks are the tools they have to use to gather food. The best adapted (fittest) to the available food have the best chance of surviving (not starving to death) and of having descendants. The different variations in these beak forms are each an experiment in natural selection. Only the fittest variant for the beaks will survive (be naturally selected) in this struggle for life.

These birds must have been separated geographically from each other for a long time. The place where they each lived must have had different types of food and since no two living beings are exactly alike the ones with better beaks for the available food would have done better and had more descendants with this inherited beak type. In these descendants there would have been a selection at each generation towards the better beaks in the population. Over time this selection would lead towards a better specific inherited beak type. This is how “survival of the fittest” or natural selection operates through the interaction of the environment and genetic heredity.

The heredity rules used in the simulation are not real since characteristics are not inherited in a one to one manner and the implied reproduction is asexual and finches are sexual. Also the die off of the whole population with a particular characteristic in one generation is unrealistic but allows the simulation to progress swiftly. Interestingly the heredity rules we used are closer to pangenesis which Darwin earlier espoused but disavowed once it was seen as incompatible with natural selection. He never came up with a replacement theory and it was not until Gregor Mendal proposed a better model that we were able to reconcile natural selection with heredity,

Natural selection of course is only one of the mechanisms operating to explain how evolution works. Inheritance in sexual reproduction is another. Mutation has a role in creating variations that can be selected on the basis of fitness for a purpose but does not explain all variability. There are many more questions without answers in determining how evolution works but the fact of evolution is as certain as anything ever can be in the scientific realm.

*If you do not have enough students to perform all four islands simultaneously (32 students) you can either cut back the simulation to three islands (24 students) or perform the simulation twice with two islands (16 students) each time.