Peter and Rosemary Grant

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Peter Raymond Grant
Alma mater
Thesis The significance of some insular characteristics in birds (1964)
Doctoral advisor Ian McTaggart-Cowan
Doctoral students
Known for Darwin's finches
Influences Miklos Udvardy
Spouse Rosemary Grant
Barbara Rosemary Grant
Alma mater
Thesis  (1985)
Doctoral advisor Staffan Ulfstrand
Known for Darwin's finches
Spouse Peter Grant

Peter Raymond Grant FRS FRSC and Barbara Rosemary Grant FRS FRSC are a British couple who are evolutionary biologists at Princeton University. Each currently holds the position of Emeritus Professor. They are known for their work concerning Darwin's finches on Daphne Major, one of the Galápagos islands. The Grants have spent six months of every year since 1973 capturing, tagging, and taking blood samples of the finches on the island. It has been their life's work to show that natural selection can be seen within a single lifetime, or even within a couple of years. Darwin originally thought that natural selection was a long, drawn out process. The Grants have shown that these changes in populations can happen very quickly.

In 1994, they were awarded the Leidy Award from the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.[1] The Grants were the subject of the book The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time by Jonathan Weiner (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), ISBN 0-679-40003-6, which won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1995.[1]

In 2003, the Grants were joint recipients of the Loye and Alden Miller Research Award. They won the 2005 Balzan Prize for Population Biology [2]. The Balzan Prize citation states:

"Peter and Rosemary Grant are distinguished for their remarkable long-term studies demonstrating evolution in action in Galápagos finches. They have demonstrated how very rapid changes in body and beak size in response to changes in the food supply are driven by natural selection. They have also elucidated the mechanisms by which new species arise and how genetic diversity is maintained in natural populations. The work of the Grants has had a seminal influence in the fields of population biology, evolution, and ecology."

Peter was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1987 and Rosemary in 2007. In 2008 both Peter and Rosemary Grant were among the 13 recipients of the Darwin-Wallace Medal, which is bestowed every 50 years by the Linnean Society of London. In 2009 they were recipients of the annual Kyoto Prize in basic sciences, an international award honoring significant contributions to the scientific, cultural and spiritual betterment of mankind.

Early Years[edit]

As young children, both Rosemary and Peter were fascinated with the world around them and the animals that inhabited their environments. Their curiosities helped shape them into the scientists that they are today.[2]

Barbara Rosemary Grant was born in Arnside, England in 1936. She also grew up enjoying the diversity of her surroundings; she would collect plant fossils and compare them to living look-alikes. At the age of 12, she read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Despite what teachers told her at school, she was destined to go to the university to get a degree.[3] She graduated from Edinburgh University in Scotland with a degree in Zoology in 1960. For the next year, she studied genetics under Conrad Waddington and then devised a dissertation to study isolated populations of fish. This project was put on hold when she accepted a biology teaching job at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.[3] There she met her soon-to-be husband, Peter Grant.[2]

Peter Raymond Grant was born in 1936 in London but relocated to the English Countryside to avoid World War II. He attended school at the Surrey-Hampshire border, where he collected insects and studied flowers.[2] He attended the University of Cambridge, then moved to Canada and began work on a doctoral degree in Zoology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. A few days after beginning his research he met Rosemary; they were married a year later.[2]


Peter Grant[edit]

  • BA (Honors) - Cambridge University- 1960
  • Ph.D. - University of British Columbia- 1964
  • Post-doctoral fellowship - Yale University- 1964-1965
  • Assistant Professor - McGill University- 1965-1968
  • Associate Professor - McGill University- 1968-1973
  • Full Professor - McGill University- 1973-1977
  • Professor - University of Michigan- 1977-1985
  • Professor - Princeton University- 1985
  • Class of 1877 Professor of Zoology- Princeton University- 1989
  • Professor of Zoology Emeritus - Princeton University- 2008
  • Visiting Professor - Uppsala and Lund University - 1981, 1985

Work & Research[edit]

Tres Marias Islands, Mexico[edit]

For his doctorate degree, Peter Grant studied the relationship between ecology and evolution and how they were interrelated. The Grants traveled to the Tres Marias Islands of Mexico to conduct field studies of the birds that inhabited the island.[2] They compared the differences of bill length to body size between populations living on the Islands and the nearby mainland. Of the birds studied, 11 species were not significantly different between the mainland and the islands; 4 species were significantly less variable on the islands, and one species was significantly more variable.[4] On average, the birds on the islands had larger beaks. The Grants attributed these differences to what foods were available, and what was available was dependent on competitors. The bigger beaks indicated a greater range of foods present in the environment.[2]

McGill University: Montreal, Canada[edit]

In 1965, Peter Grant accepted tenure at McGill University in Montreal. He created a method to test the Competition Hypothesis to see if it worked today as it did in the past.[2] This research was done on grassland voles and woodland mice. The study looked at the competitiveness between populations of rodents and among rodent species.[5] In his articles, Interspecific Competition Among Rodents, he concluded that competitive interaction for space is common among many rodent species, not just the species that have been studied in detail.[5] Peter Grant also states that there are many causes for increased competition: reproduction, resources, amount of space, and invasion of other species.[5]

Galapagos Islands[edit]

Daphne Major was a perfect place to perform experiments and study changes within the birds. It was isolated and not inhabited; any changes that were to occur to the land and environment would be due to natural forces with no human destruction.[6] The island provided the best environment to study natural selection; seasons of heavy rain switched to seasons of extended drought. With these environmental changes brought changes in the types of foods available to the birds. This is what the Grants would study for the next few decades of their lives.

In 1973 the Grants headed out on what they thought would be a two-year study on the island of Daphne Major in the Galapagos Islands. There they would study evolution and ultimately determine what drives the formation of new species.[6] There are 13 species of finch that live on the island; five of these are tree finch, one warbler finch, one vegetarian finch, and six species of ground finch. These birds provide a great way to study adaptive radiation. Their beaks are specific to the type of diet that they eat; which in turn is reflective of the food available. The finches are easy to catch and provide a good animal to study. The Grants tagged, labeled, measured, and took blood samples of the birds they were studying. The two-year study continued through 2012.[6]

During the rainy season of 1977 only 24 millimeters of rain fell. Two of the main finch species were hit exceptionally hard and many of them died.[7] The lack of rain caused major food sources to become scarce, causing the need to find alternative food sources. The smaller, softer seeds ran out, leaving only the larger, tougher seeds. The finch species with smaller beaks struggled to find alternate seeds to eat.[7] The following two years suggested that natural selection could happen very rapidly. Because the smaller finch species could not eat the large seeds, they died off. Finches with larger beaks were able to eat the seeds and reproduce. The population in the years following the drought in 1977, had “measurably larger” beaks than had the previous birds.

In 1981 the Grants came across a bird they had never seen before. It was heavier than the other ground finches by more than five grams.[8] They called this bird, Big Bird. It had many different characteristics than those of the native finches; a strange call, extra glossy feathers, could eat both large and small seeds, and could also eat the nectar, pollen, and seeds of the cacti that grow on the island (9). Big Bird is thought to be a hybrid of the medium-beaked ground finch and the cactus finch.[8] Although hybrids do happen, many of the birds living on the island tend to stick within their own species.[9] Big bird lived for thirteen years, and his descendants have only mated within themselves for the past thirty years, a total of seven generations.[9]

Over the course of 1982-1983, El Niño brought a steady eight months of rain. Daphne Major usually gets two months of rain in the normal rainy season.[10] The excessive rain brought a turnover in the types of vegetation growing on the island. The seeds shifted from large, hard to crack seeds to many different types of small, softer seeds. This gave birds with smaller beaks an advantage when another drought hit the following year.[10] Small-beaked finch could eat all of the small seeds faster than the larger beaked birds could get to them.

In 2003, a drought similar in severity to the 1977 drought occurred on the island. However, in the time between the droughts (beginning in late 1982), the large ground finch (Geospiza magnirostris) had established a breeding population on the island. This species has diet overlap with the medium ground finch (G. fortis), so they are potential competitors. The 2003 drought and resulting decrease in food supply may have increased these species' competition with each other, particularly for the larger seeds in the medium ground finches' diet. Following the drought, the medium ground finch population had a decline in average beak size, in contrast to the increase in size found following the 1977 drought. This was hypothesized to be due to the presence of the large ground finch; the smaller-beaked individuals of the medium ground finch may have been able to survive better due to a lack of competition over large seeds with the large ground finch. This is an example of character displacement.[11]

Significant Findings[edit]

In Evolution: Making Sense of Life, the takeaway from the Grants' 40-year study can be broken down into three major lessons. The first is that natural selection is a variable process, it is constantly changing. The fact that they studied the island in both times of excessive rain and drought gives a better picture of what happens to populations over time. The next lesson learned is that evolution can actually be a fairly rapid process. It does not take millions of years; these processes can be seen in as little as two years. Lastly, and as the author states, most importantly is that selection can change over time. During some years, selection will favor those birds with larger beaks. Other years with substantial amounts of smaller seeds, selection will favor the birds with the smaller beaks.[12]

In their 2003 paper, the Grants wrap up their decades-long study by stating that, selection oscillates in a direction. For this reason, neither the medium ground finch or the cactus finch has stayed morphologically the same over the course of the experiment. The average beak and body size are not the same today for either species as they were when the study first began.[13] The Grants also state that these changes in morphology and phenotypes could not have been predicted from the beginning.[14] They were able to directly witness the evolution of the finch species as a result of the inconsistent and harsh environment of Daphne Major.

Awards & Recognition[edit]

Peter Grant[edit]

Societies and Academies:

  • Royal Society of London
  • Royal Society of Canada
  • American Philosophical Society
  • American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • American Society of Naturalists (President - 1999)
  • American Academy of Sciences
  • Society for the Study of Evolution
  • Ecological Society of America
  • American Ornithologist's Union
  • Linnean Society of London
  • Society for Behavioral Ecology
  • Charles Darwin Foundation

Honorary Degrees

  • Honorary Doctorate Uppsala University, Sweden- 1986
  • Universidad San Francisco, Quito- 2005
  • University of Zurich- 2008

Associate Editor of Scientific Journals

  • Ecology- 1968-1970
  • Evolutionary Theory- 1973-
  • Biological Journal of the Linnean Society- 1984-
  • Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London- 1990-1993

Honorary citizen of Puerto Bacquerizo, I. San Cristobal, Galapagos- 2005-

Rosemary Grant[edit]

Societies and Academies:

  • American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • Charles Darwin Foundation
  • American Society of Naturalists
  • Royal Society of Canada
  • Royal Society of London

Honorary Degrees:

  • McGill University- 2002
  • Universidad San Francisco, Quito- 2005
  • University of Zurich- 2008

Honorary citizen of Puerto Bacquerizo, I. San Cristobal, Galapagos- 2005-

Received Jointly[edit]

  • Kyoto Prize- 2009 (an international award honoring significant contributions to the scientific, cultural and spiritual betterment of mankind)
  • Darwin-Wallace Medal, Linnean Society of London- 2009
  • Municipality of Puerto Rico Ayora Science Award- 2006
  • Outstanding Scientists Award, American Institute of Biological Sciences- 2005
  • Grinnell Award, University of California at Berkeley- 2003
  • Loye and Alden Miller Award, Cooper Ornithological Society- 2003
  • Darwin Medal, Royal Society of London- 2002
  • E.O. Wilson Prize, American Society of Naturalists-1998
  • Leidy Medal, Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia- 1994
  • Balzan Prize for Population Biology- 2005


Evolutionary Dynamics of a Natural Population: Large Cactus Finch of the Galapagos

  • Received the Wildlife Publication Award, Wildlife Society- 1991

The Beak of a Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time - Jonathan Weiner

How and Why Species Multiply: The Radiation of Darwin’s Finches-2008

Most Recent Journal Articles[edit]

  • Fission and fusion of Darwin’s finch populations. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 363: 2821-2829, 2008
  • Pedigrees, assortative mating and speciation in Darwin’s finches. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 275: 661-668, 2008
  • The calmodulin pathway and the evolution of elongated beak morphology in Darwin’s finches. Nature 442: 563-567, 2006 (with others)
  • Evolution of character displacement in Darwin’s finches. Science 313: 224-226, 2006
  • Species before speciation is complete. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Gardens 93: 94-102, 2006
  • The origin and diversification of Galápagos mockingbirds. Evolution 60: 370-382, 2006 (with others)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Four Awards Bestowed by The Academy of Natural Sciences and Their Recipients". Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. 156 (1): 403–404. June 2007. doi:10.1635/0097-3157(2007)156[403:TFABBT]2.0.CO;2. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Ahmed, F. "Profile of Peter R. Grant." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107.13 (2010): 5703-705. Web. 1 Nov. 2016.
  3. ^ a b Nair, P. "Profile of B. Rosemary Grant." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108.30 (2011): 12195-2197. Web. 3 Nov. 2016.
  4. ^ Grant, P. R. "Bill length variability in birds of the Tres Marias Islands, Mexico." Canadian Journal of Zoology 45.5 (1967): 805-815.
  5. ^ a b c Grant, P. R. Grant, P. R. “Interspecific Competition Among Rodents.” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, vol. 3, 1972, pp. 79–106.
  6. ^ a b c "Watching Evolution Happen in Two Lifetimes." Interview by Emily Singer. Quanta Magazine 22 Sept. 2016: n. pag. Print.
  7. ^ a b Bell, Achenbach, Joel. "The People Who Saw Evolution." Princeton Alumni Weekly 23 Apr. 2014: n. pag. Web. 9 Nov. 2016.
  8. ^ a b Cressey, Daniel. "Darwin's Finches Tracked to Reveal Evolution in Action." Nature (2009): n. pag. Web. 8 Nov. 2016.
  9. ^ a b Daniel. Weiner, Jonathan. "In Darwin’s Footsteps." New York Times 4 Aug. 2014: n. pag. Web. 9 Nov. 2016.
  10. ^ a b Bell, G. "Every Inch a Finch: A Commentary on Grant (1993) 'Hybridization of Darwin's Finches on Isla Daphne Major, Galapagos'" Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 370.1666 (2015): 20140287. Web. 9 Nov. 2016.
  11. ^ Grant, Peter R.; Grant, B. Rosemary (2006-07-14). "Evolution of Character Displacement in Darwin's Finches". Science. 313 (5784): 224–226. doi:10.1126/science.1128374. ISSN 0036-8075. PMID 16840700. 
  12. ^ Zimmer, Carl, and Douglas John Emlen. "Natural Selection: Empirical Studies in the Wild." Evolution: Making Sense of Life. Greenwood Village, CO: Roberts, 2013. 220-23. Print.
  13. ^ Grant, B. Rosemary, and Peter R. Grant. "What Darwin's Finches Can Teach Us about the Evolutionary Origin and Regulation of Biodiversity." BioScience 53.10 (2003): 965. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.
  14. ^ "Peter and Rosemary Grant -Bio-bibliography." International Balzan Prize Foundation. Fondazione Internazionale Balzan "Premio", Jan. 2009. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.
  • Education, accolades, joint awards, and publishing were cited from the International Balzan Prize Foundation bibliography (13)

External links[edit]

Additional bio information at