Unit Four. The Evolution and Diversity of Life


14. Evolution and Natural Selection


14.12. Selection on Color in Guppies


To study evolution, biologists have traditionally investigated what has happened in the past, sometimes many millions of years ago. To learn about dinosaurs, a paleontologist looks at dinosaur fossils. To study human evolution, an anthropologist looks at human fossils and, increasingly, examines the “family tree” of mutations that have accumulated in human DNA over millions of years. For the biologists taking this traditional approach, evolutionary biology is similar to astronomy and history, relying on observation rather than experiment to examine ideas about past events.

Nonetheless, evolutionary biology is not entirely an observational science. Darwin was right about many things, but one area in which he was mistaken concerns the pace at which evolution occurs. Darwin thought that evolution occurred at a very slow, almost imperceptible, pace. However, in recent years many case studies have demonstrated that, in some circumstances, evolutionary change can occur rapidly. Consequently, it is possible to establish experimental studies to test evolutionary hypotheses. Although laboratory studies on fruit flies and other organisms have been common for more than 50 years, it has only been in recent years that scientists have started conducting experimental studies of evolution in nature. One excellent example of how observations of the natural world can be combined with rigorous experiments in the lab and in the field concerns research on the guppy, Poecilia reticulata.


Guppies Live in Different Environments

The guppy is a popular aquarium fish because of its bright coloration and prolific reproduction. In nature, guppies are found in small streams in northeastern South America and the nearby island of Trinidad. In Trinidad, guppies are found in many mountain streams. One interesting feature of several streams is that they have waterfalls. Amazingly, guppies and some other fish are capable of colonizing portions of the stream above the waterfall. The killifish, Rivulus hartii, is a particularly good colonizer; apparently on rainy nights, it will wriggle out of the stream and move through the damp leaf litter. Guppies are not so proficient, but they are good at swimming upstream. During flood seasons, rivers sometimes overflow their banks, creating secondary channels that move through the forest. During these occasions, guppies may be able to move upstream and invade pools above waterfalls. By contrast, not all species are capable of such dispersal and thus are only found in these streams below the first waterfall. One species whose distribution is restricted by waterfalls is the pike cichlid, Crenicichla alta, a voracious predator that feeds on other fish, including guppies.

Because of these barriers to dispersal, guppies can be found in two very different environments. The guppies you see living in pools just below the waterfalls in figure 14.30 are faced with predation by the pike cichlid. This substantial risk keeps rates of survival relatively low. By contrast, in similar pools just above the waterfall, the only predator present is the killifish, which only rarely preys on guppies. Guppy populations above and below waterfalls exhibit many differences. In the high-predation pools, male guppies exhibit the drab coloration you see in the guppies below the waterfall in figure 14.30. Moreover, they tend to reproduce at a younger age and attain relatively smaller adult sizes. By contrast, male fish above the waterfall in the figure display gaudy colors that they use to court females. Adults mature later and grow to larger sizes.



Figure 14.30. The evolution of protective coloration in guppies.

In pools below waterfalls where predation is high, male guppies (Poecilia reticulata) are drab colored. In the absence of the highly predatory pike cichlid (Crenicichla alta), male guppies in pools above waterfalls are much more colorful and attractive to females. The killifish (Rivulus hartii) is also a predator but only rarely eats guppies. The evolution of these differences in guppies can be experimentally tested.


These differences suggest the function of natural selection. In the low-predation environment, males display gaudy colors and spots that help in mating. Moreover, larger males are most successful at holding territories and mating with females, and larger females lay more eggs. Thus, in the absence of predators, larger and more colorful fish may have produced more offspring, leading to the evolution of those traits. In pools below the waterfall, however, natural selection would favor different traits. Colorful males are likely to attract the attention of the pike cichlid, and high predation rates mean that most fish live short lives; thus, individuals that are more drab and shunt energy into early reproduction, rather than into growth to a larger size, are likely to be favored by natural selection.


The Experiments

Although the differences between guppies living above and below the waterfalls suggest that they represent evolutionary responses to differences in the strength of predation, alternative explanations are possible. Perhaps, for example, only very large fish are capable of swimming upstream past the waterfall to colonize pools. If this were the case, then a founder effect would occur in which the new population was established solely by individuals with genes for large size.

Laboratory Experiment. The only way to rule out such alternative possibilities is to conduct a controlled experiment. John Endler, now of the University of California, Santa Barbara, conducted the first experiments in large pools in laboratory greenhouses. At the start of the experiment, a group of 2,000 guppies was divided equally among 10 large pools. Six months later, pike cichlids were added to four of the pools and killifish to another four, with the remaining two pools left to serve as “no predator” controls. Fourteen months later (which corresponds to 10 guppy generations), the scientists compared the populations. You can see their results in figure 14.31. The guppies in the killifish pool (the blue line) and control pools (the green line) were notably large, brightly colored fish with about 13 colorful spots per individual. In contrast, the guppies in the pike cichlid pools (the red line) were smaller and drab in coloration, with a reduced number of spots (about 9 per fish). These results clearly suggest that predation can lead to rapid evolutionary change, but do these laboratory experiments reflect what occurs in nature?



Figure 14.31 Evolutionary change in spot number.

Guppies raised in low-predation or no predation environments in laboratory greenhouses had a greater number of spots, whereas selection in more dangerous environments, like the pools with the highly predatory pike cichlid, led to less conspicuous fish. The same results are seen in field experiments conducted in pools above and below waterfalls (photo).


Field Experiment. To find out, Endler and colleagues— including David Reznick, now at the University of California, Riverside—located two streams that had guppies in pools below a waterfall, but not above it (see photograph in figure 14.31). As in other Trinidadian streams, the pike cichlid was present in the lower pools, but only the killifish was found above the waterfalls. The scientists then transplanted guppies to the upper pools and returned at several-year intervals to monitor the populations. Despite originating from populations in which predation levels were high, the transplanted populations rapidly evolved the traits characteristic of low-predation guppies: They matured late, attained greater size, and had brighter colors. Control populations in the lower pools, by contrast, continued to be drab and matured early and at smaller sizes. Laboratory studies confirmed that the differences between the populations were the result of genetic differences. These results demonstrate that substantial evolutionary change can occur in less than 12 years. More generally, these studies indicate how scientists can formulate hypotheses about how evolution occurs and then test these hypotheses in natural conditions. The results give strong support to the theory of evolution by natural selection.


Key Learning Outcome 14.12. Experiments can be conducted in nature to test hypotheses about how evolution occurs. Such studies reveal that natural selection can lead to rapid evolutionary change.


Author's Corner

Are Bird-Killing Cats Nature's Way of Making Better Birds?

Death is not pretty, early in the morning on the doorstep. A small dead bird was left at our front door one morning, lying by the newspaper as if it might at any moment fly away. I knew it would not. Like other birds before it, it was a gift to our household by Feisty, a cat who lives with us. Feisty is a killer of birds, and every so often he leaves one for us, like rent.

We have four cats, and the other three, true housecats, would not know what to do with a bird. Feisty is different, a longhaired gray Persian with the soul of a hunter. While the other three cats sleep safely in the house with us, Feisty spends most nights outside, prowling.

Feisty's nocturnal donations are not well received by my family. More than once it has been suggested, as we donate the bird to the trashman, that perhaps Feisty would be happier living in the country.

As a biologist I try to take a more scientific view. I tell my girls that getting rid of Feisty is unwarranted because hunting cats like Feisty actually help birds, in a Darwinian sort of way. Like an evolutionary quality control check, I explain, predators ensure that only those individuals of a population that are better-suited to their environment contribute to the next generation, by the simple expedient of removing the lesser- suited. By taking the birds who are least able to escape predation—the sick and the old—Feisty culls the local bird population, leaving it on average a little better off.

That's what I tell my girls. It all makes sense, from a biological point of view, and it is a story they have heard before, in movies like Never Cry Wolf, and The Lion King. So Feisty is given a reprieve, and survives to hunt another night.

What I haven't told my girls is how little evidence actually backs up this pretty defense of Feisty's behavior. My explanation may be couched in scientific language, but without proof this "predator-as-purifier” tale is no more than a hypothesis. It might be true, and then again it might not. By such thin string has Feisty's future with our family hung.

Recently the string became a strong cable. Two French biologists put the hypothesis I had been using to defend Feisty to the test. To my great relief, it was supported.

Drs. Anders Moller and Johannes Erritzoe of the Universite Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris devised a simple way to test the hypothesis. They compared the health of birds killed by domestic cats like Feisty with that of birds killed in accidents such as flying into glass windows or moving cars. Glass windows do not select for the weak or infirm—a healthy bird flies into a glass window and breaks its neck just as easily as a sickly bird. If cats are actually selecting the less-healthy birds, then their prey should include a larger proportion of sickly individuals than those felled by flying into glass windows.

How can we know what birds are sickly? Drs. Moller and Erritzoe examined the size of the dead bird's spleens. The size of its spleen is a good indicator of how healthy a bird is. Birds experiencing a lot of infections, or harboring a lot of parasites, have smaller spleens than healthy birds.

They examined 18 species of birds, more than 500 individuals. In all but two species (robins and goldcrests) they found that the spleens of birds killed by cats were significantly smaller than those killed accidentally. We're not splitting hairs here, talking about some minor statistical difference. Spleens were on average a third smaller in cat-killed birds. In five bird species (blackcaps, house sparrows, lesser whitethroats, skylarks, and spotted flycatchers), the spleens of birds pounced on by cats were less than half the size of those killed by flying at speed into glass windows or moving cars.

As a control to be sure that additional factors were not operating, the Paris biologists checked for other differences between birds killed by cats and birds killed accidentally. Weight, sex, and wing length, all of which you could imagine might be important, were not significant. Cat- killed birds had, on average, the same weight, proportion of females, and wing length as accident-killed birds.

One other factor did make a difference: age. About 50% of the birds killed accidentally were young, while fully 70% of the birds killed by cats were. Apparently it's not quite so easy to catch an experienced old codger as it is a callow youth.

So Feisty was just doing Darwin's duty, I pleaded, informing my girls that the birds he catches would soon have died anyway. But a dead bird on a doorstep argues louder than any science, and they remained unconvinced.

They are my daughters, and thus not ones to give in without a fight. Scouring the Internet, they assembled this counter-argument: Predatory house cats not unlike Feisty, as well as feral cats (domesticated cats that have been abandoned to the wild), are causing major problems for native bird populations of England, New Zealand, and Australia, as well as here in the United States. Although house cats like Feisty have the predatory instincts of their ancestors, they seem to lack the restraint that their wild relatives have. Most wild cats hunt only when hungry, but pet and feral cats seem to "love the kill,” not killing for food but for sport.

So Darwin and I lost this argument. It seems I must restrict Feisty's hunting expeditions after all. While a little pruning may benefit a bird population, wholesale slaughter only devastates it. I will always see a lion whenever I look at Feisty on the prowl, but it will be a lion restricted to indoor hunting.