Life and love amongst the finches: Aggressive redheads win the best nest sites, but can the Gouldian finches survive?

Sarah Pryke has always had an eye for the shape, colour and movement of animals. After growing up surrounded by wildlife in a remote rural area of South Africa, she was employed as an illustrator by the local museum while studying for her science degree at the University of Natal.

Sarah Pryke, Photo credit: SDP Photo, Tim Morison
Sarah Pryke, Photo credit: SDP Photo, Tim Morison

Now, as a post-doctoral fellow of the  at Macquarie University in Sydney, she is working in the Kimberleys investigating the impact of colour on the behaviour of the Gouldian finch, a small, dazzling bird of Australia’s tropical savannah.

With the help of her L’ORÉAL Australia For Women In Science Fellowship she plans to get a better understanding of their mating success – information that could be crucial to the survival of these endangered birds.

“What started as a project on colour communication in birds, to answer certain important questions of evolution, is now taking on a real conservation angle,” Pryke says.

“Up to the 1980s, there were hundreds and thousands of Gouldian finches, but with people moving through the area and lighting fires, the population is declining each year. I want to look at how best to increase breeding success in the finches. It is important for the survival of one of Australia’s most colourful bird species—and perhaps for the conservation of a unique habitat and ecological community.”

The heads of Gouldian finches come in three distinct colours. About 70% of Gouldian finches have black heads, about 30 percent red and less than one percent yellow. The colours are directly genetically determined and, unlike human hair colour, there are no intermediates.

Pryke has been trying to work out why the three forms persist, and what advantages and disadvantages each of the head colours confer. Normally you would expect natural selection to favour only one colour over the others. Such brightly-coloured forms are rare in nature, Pryke says.

“This type of genetically inherited colouration is very unusual, but also very interesting because the genes that control head colour could also control other aspects of their lives.”

Already she has found significant differences in the behaviour of the three forms. The red-heads are the most aggressive and dominate the other forms, selecting the best nest sites and having the best access to food and mates.

But that does not necessarily mean they have the greatest breeding success.

The red-heads spend so much time fighting other males that they contribute very little to parental care and are constantly under stress. So they do not tend to live as long as the more laid-back black-heads. The offspring of the black-heads may not be born into such a high-class neighbourhood, but they see more of their father.

Pryke has been able to link these behavioural differences to differences in physiology. The red-heads have much higher levels of testosterone, for instance. So what she is finding is that the balance of the colours is reflected in a balance of advantages and disadvantages in the community in which the birds live.

With the help of the L’ORÉAL Fellowship, Pryke now wants to investigate the breeding success of the finches and how the birds might best be managed for conservation purposes.

A key part of this work will focus on mate preferences—who breeds with whom. Intriguingly, it is already known that the females are not totally faithful to their partners and secretly mate with other males.

In order to pursue this work, Pryke has established an aviary in the Hunter Valley which contains a breeding population of nearly 1000 birds.

Not yet 30, Pryke is already a highly-regarded researcher. Her work so far on Gouldian finches has been published in the top journals in her field. And it’s not the first time she has made significant findings.

She is already being asked to write chapters on bird colours and communication in textbooks. She has been a scientific journal referee for more than 50 papers. And she has begun supervising doctoral students.

Since arriving in Australia in 2004, she has been awarded two highly-prized Australian Research Council grants and a NewSouth Global postdoctoral Fellowship. It’s an outstanding record for someone who had to convince herself that research was the life for her.

After finishing her PhD in Sweden in 2003, she took a complete break from science for 16 months—until she missed it.

“Ten years ago I didn’t know what a PhD was. I never imagined I would be caught up in such an exciting enterprise.”

Biographical details

2007-2009 – ARC Postdoctoral Fellowship Centre for the Integrative Study of Animal Behaviour, Macquarie University

2004-2007 – NewSouth Global Postdoctoral Fellow School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of New South Wales

2003 – PhD Department of Animal Ecology, Göteborg University, Sweden

1999 – BSc honours cum laude School of Botany and Zoology, University of Natal, South Africa

1996-1998 – BSc cum laude University of Natal, South Africa

Career highlights

2006 – The Christer Hemborg Lecture, Uppsala University, Sweden (Invited lecture for an early career researcher in evolutionary biology)

2004 – Pitelka Award, International Society for Behavioural Ecology, Jyväskylä, Finland (awarded for best paper in behavioural ecology at the ISBE Congress)

2002 – S2A3 Gold Medal Award, awarded by the University of Natal for top Master’s thesis, South Africa

1999 – NEBS Top Honours Thesis, awarded by the National Evolutionary Biology Society, South Africa

1999 – Dean’s Commendation, awarded for first class grades by the Dean of the Faculty of Science: Honours (1999), Third Year (1998), Second Year (1997), First Year (1996)

Grants awarded

2007-2009 – Australian Research Council Discovery Grant (DP0770889) CI: Dr SR Pryke (APD)

2006-2008 – Australian Research Council Linkage Grant (LP0667562) CI: Dr SC Griffith; Dr SR Pryke; A/Prof WA Buttemer

2005-2006 – Australian Academy of Science Award for Research on the Conservation of Endangered Native Animals

2004- 2007 – NewSouth Global Postdoctoral Fellowship, Australia University of New South Wales, Sydney

2004-2007 – Claude Leon Harris Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship (Royal Society) (Note: funding declined in favour of NSG Fellowship)

2004-2006 – National Research Foundation Prestigious Postdoctoral Fellowship, South Africa (Note: funding declined in favour of NSG Fellowship)

2000-2003 – STINT International Scholarship for Academic Excellence (PhD funding), Sweden

2001-2003 – NRF Prestigious Scholarship for Doctoral Study Abroad, South Africa

1999 – NRF Honours Scholarship, South Africa

Sarah Pryke’s radio interview for A Question of Balance