Adaptive Radiation

Galapagos cacti
Galapagos cacti

In adaptive radiation, numerous species evolve from a common ancestor introduced into an environment with diverse ecological niches. The progeny evolve genetically into customized variations of themselves, each adapting to survive in a particular niche.

In 1898 Henry F. Osborn identified and developed the evolutionary phenomenon known as adaptive radiation, whereby different forms of a species evolve, quickly in evolutionary terms, from a common ancestor.

According to the principles of natural selection, organisms that are the best adapted (most fit) to compete will live to reproduce and pass their successful traits on to their offspring. The process of adaptive radiation illustrates one way in which natural selection can operate when members of one population of a species are cut off or migrate to a different environment that is isolated from the first.

Such isolation can occur from one patch of plantings to another, from one mountain top or hillside to another, from pond to pond, or from island to island. Faced with different environments, the group will diverge from the original population and in time become different enough to form a new species.

Genetic Changes

In a divergent population, the relative numbers of one form of allele (characteristic) decrease, while the relative numbers of a different allele increase. New environmental pressures will select for favorable alleles that may not have been favored in the old environment.

Over successive generations, therefore, a new gene created by random mutation (change) may replace the original form of the gene if, for example, the trait encoded by that gene allows the divergent group to cope better with environmental factors, such as food sources, predators, or temperature.

The result in the long term is that deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) changes sufficiently through the growth of divergent populations to allow new generations to become significantly different from the original population. In time, they are unable to reproduce with members of the original species and become a new species.

Galápagos Islands Case Study

Adaptive radiation occurs dramatically when a species migrates from one landmass to another. This may occur between islands or between continents and islands. A classic example of adaptive radiation is the evolution of finches noted by Charles Darwin during his trips to the Galápagos Islands off the west coast of South America.

Several species of plants and animals had migrated to these islands from the South American mainland by means of flight, wind, ocean debris, or other means of transport. Finches from the mainland—perhaps aided by winds—settled on fifteen of the islands in the Galápagos group and began to adapt to the various unoccupied ecological niches on those islands, which differed.

Over several generations, natural selection favored a variety of finch species with beaks adapted for the different types of foods available on the different islands. As a result, several species of different finches evolved, roughly simultaneously, on these islands.

Hawaiian Silversword Alliance

Hawaiian Silversword Alliance
Hawaiian Silversword Alliance

Although plants seem unable to "migrate" as birds and other animals do, adaptive radiation occurs in the plant world as well. In the Hawaiian Islands, for example, twenty-eight species of the Asteraceae family are known together as the Hawaiian silversword alliance. The entire group appears to be traceable to one ancestor, thought to have arrived on the island of Kauai from western North America.

The silverswords—which compose three genera, Argyroxiphium, Dubautia, and Wilkesia— have since evolved into twenty-eight species, and this speciation came about due to major ecological shifts. These plants are therefore prime examples of adaptive radiation.

Within the silversword alliance, different species have adapted to widely varying ecosystems found throughout the islands. Argyroxiphium sandwicense, for example, is endemic to the island of Maui and grows at high elevations from 6,890 to 9,843 feet (2,100 - 3,000 meters) on the dry, alpine slopes of the volcano Haleakala.

This species has succulent leaves covered with silver hairs. It is thought that the hairs lessen the pace of evaporative moisture loss and protect the leaves from the sun. In contrast, species of the genus Dubautia that grow in wet, shady forests have large leaves that lack hairs.

Despite their "customized" physiologies, the silverswords that have evolved in Hawaii are all closely related to one another, so much so that any two can hybridize. Studies of the silverswords have provided what geneticist Michael Purugganan called a "genetic snapshot of plant evolution". Adaptive radiation is one window into how new plant structures arise.