Charles Darwin and Natural Selection
In the mid-nineteenth century, two naturalists, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, independently conceived and described the actual mechanism for evolution. Importantly, each naturalist spent time exploring the natural world on expeditions to the tropics. From 1831 to 1836, Darwin traveled around the world on H.M.S. Beagle, including stops in South America, Australia, and the southern tip of Africa. Wallace traveled to Brazil to collect insects in the Amazon rainforest from 1848 to 1852 and to the Malay Archipelago from 1854 to 1862. Darwin’s journey, like Wallace’s later journeys to the Malay Archipelago, included stops at several island chains, the last being the Galápagos Islands west of Ecuador. On these islands, Darwin observed species of organisms on different islands that were clearly similar, yet had distinct differences. For example, the ground finches inhabiting the Galápagos Islands comprised several species with a unique beak shape (Figure). The species on the islands had a graded series of beak sizes and shapes with very small differences between the most similar. He observed that these finches closely resembled another finch species on the South American mainland. Darwin imagined that the island species might be species modified from one of the original mainland species. Upon further study, he realized that each finch's varied beaks helped the birds acquire a specific type of food. For example, seed-eating finches had stronger, thicker beaks for breaking seeds, and insect-eating finches had spear-like beaks for stabbing their prey.
Wallace and Darwin both observed similar patterns in other organisms and they independently developed the same explanation for how and why such changes could take place. Darwin called this mechanism natural selection. Natural selection, or “survival of the fittest,” is the more prolific reproduction of individuals with favorable traits that survive environmental change because of those traits. This leads to evolutionary change.
For example, Darwin observed a population of giant tortoises in the Galápagos Archipelago to have longer necks than those that lived on other islands with dry lowlands. These tortoises were “selected” because they could reach more leaves and access more food than those with short necks. In times of drought when fewer leaves would be available, those that could reach more leaves had a better chance to eat and survive than those that couldn’t reach the food source. Consequently, long-necked tortoises would be more likely to be reproductively successful and pass the long-necked trait to their offspring. Over time, only long-necked tortoises would be present in the population.
Natural selection, Darwin argued, was an inevitable outcome of three principles that operated in nature. First, most characteristics of organisms are inherited, or passed from parent to offspring. Although no one, including Darwin and Wallace, knew how this happened at the time, it was a common understanding. Second, more offspring are produced than are able to survive, so resources for survival and reproduction are limited. The capacity for reproduction in all organisms outstrips the availability of resources to support their numbers. Thus, there is competition for those resources in each generation. Both Darwin and Wallace’s understanding of this principle came from reading economist Thomas Malthus' essay that explained this principle in relation to human populations. Third, offspring vary among each other in regard to their characteristics and those variations are inherited. Darwin and Wallace reasoned that offspring with inherited characteristics which allow them to best compete for limited resources will survive and have more offspring than those individuals with variations that are less able to compete. Because characteristics are inherited, these traits will be better represented in the next generation. This will lead to change in populations over generations in a process that Darwin called descent with modification. Ultimately, natural selection leads to greater adaptation of the population to its local environment. It is the only mechanism known for adaptive evolution.
In 1858, Darwin and Wallace (Figure) presented papers at the Linnean Society in London that discussed the idea of natural selection. The following year Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species, was published. His book outlined in considerable detail his arguments for evolution by natural selection.
It is difficult and time-consuming to document and present examples of evolution by natural selection. The Galápagos finches are an excellent example. Peter and Rosemary Grant and their colleagues have studied Galápagos finch populations every year since 1976 and have provided important evidence of natural selection. The Grants found changes from one generation to the next in beak shape distribution with the medium ground finch on the Galápagos island of Daphne Major. The birds have inherited a variation in their bill shape with some having wide deep bills and others having thinner bills. During a period in which rainfall was higher than normal because of an El Niño, there was a lack of large hard seeds of which the large-billed birds ate; however, there was an abundance of the small soft seeds which the small-billed birds ate. Therefore, the small-billed birds were able to survive and reproduce. In the years following this El Niño, the Grants measured beak sizes in the population and found that the average bill size was smaller. Since bill size is an inherited trait, parents with smaller bills had more offspring and the bill evolved into a much smaller size. As conditions improved in 1987 and larger seeds became more available, the trend toward smaller average bill size ceased.
Field BiologistMany people hike, explore caves, scuba dive, or climb mountains for recreation. People often participate in these activities hoping to see wildlife. Experiencing the outdoors can be incredibly enjoyable and invigorating. What if your job entailed working in the wilderness? Field biologists by definition work outdoors in the “field.” The term field in this case refers to any location outdoors, even under water. A field biologist typically focuses research on a certain species, group of organisms, or a single habitat (Figure).
One objective of many field biologists includes discovering new, unrecorded species. Not only do such findings expand our understanding of the natural world, but they also lead to important innovations in fields such as medicine and agriculture. Plant and microbial species, in particular, can reveal new medicinal and nutritive knowledge. Other organisms can play key roles in ecosystems or if rare require protection. When discovered, researchers can use these important species as evidence for environmental regulations and laws.