Arxiu d'etiquetes: speciation

Islands as natural laboratories for evolution

Islands are natural laboratories where we can study evolution in vivo. Whether from volcanic or continental origin, the fact that islands being isolated from the mainland by the sea makes that island biota present spectacular adaptations, sometimes originating giant or dwarf species in comparison with their mainland relatives. In this article, we describe the evolutionary mechanisms behind this phenomenon and talk about some striking examples.

Islands can have a volcanic origin, involving the emergence of virgin lands that will be colonized involving new adaptations to the new conditions. Islands can also have a continental origin, involving the separation of the mainland by tectonic processes and isolation of fauna and flora before connected.

Volcanic conus aspect in Hawaii. Source: Steve Juverston, via Flickr.


Generation of new species caused by the emergence of a geographic barrier, such as the emergence of a range, changes in sea level or emergence of new islands by tectonic movements is a process known as allopatric speciation and is the main process acting on islands. We can described two kinds of allopatric speciation:

  1. Vicariant speciation: when two populations are separated by a geographic barrier, for example when a piece of land separated from the mainland. An example is the island of Madagascar, that when separated from Africa left the biota of the island isolated from the continent by the sea.
  2. Peripatric speciation: a new population establishes and gets isolated in a new environment by a very small number of individuals from a larger population. This is the case of the colonization of a sterile land, such as oceanic islands. In this case, the individuals that colonize the new environment may not represent the genetic pool of the original population and with time and reproductive isolation; may originate a new species (founder effect).

The great British naturalist and creator of the theory of evolution, Charles Darwin, insipirated on their findings into the volcanic archipelago of the Galapagos to develop his great theory, paradigm of modern science.

Oceanic islands are formed by exploding volcanoes or movements of the mid-ocean ridge. Due to this volcanic activity, groups of islands are formed, each island having its own history, climate, topography and geology. This creates a perfect scenário to observe how evolution works because each population reaching a new island is affected by different environmental pressures and may never come in contact again with other islands populations, forming unique species, endemic to each island. Many naturalists and scientists have studied the evolution in vivo in volcanic origin archipelagos such as the Hawaiian Islands, Seychelles, Mascarene Islands, Juan Fernandez archipelago or Canary Islands. One of the last islands appeared in the Atlantic Ocean is the Suerty Island, emerged at 1963 30 km southwards of Iceland. Since then, life advent has been studied to understand ecological and evolutionary mechanisms acting in island colonization.

Suerty Island in eruption, in the south of Island. Source: Wikimedia.


Often oceanic islands, present no predators and this triggers the appearance of very curious adaptations. One of the most surprising processes is gigantism in animals or woodiness acquisition in plants.

Woodiness acquisition in islands by herbaceous plants on the continent has been documented in several families and islands around the world. The cause of this phenomenon would be the absence of herbivores and competitors in sterile islands, which would allow developing a greater height willing to reach sunlight.

For example, in Hawaii we found the alliance of the Hawaiian silverswords. It comprises 28 species in three genus (Argyroxiphium, Dubautia and Wilkesia), all woody members of the Asteraceae family or sunflowers. Their closest relatives are perennial herbs in North America.

Hawaiian silversword aspect from Argyroxiphium genus (left) and their closest relatives in mainland (right), from Raillardella genus. Source: Wikimedia.

In the Canary Islands, there are many examples of this phenomenon. Echium genus of Boraginaceae or borage and forget-me-not family contains about 60 species, of which 27 are located in different islands of volcanic origin in the Macaronesia (Canary Islands, Madeira and Cape Verde). Almost all members of this genus found in Macaronesia are bushes, forming an inflorescence that can reach up to three meters high, being the symbol of the Teide National Park (called tajinastes) while his nearby relatives are Eurasians herbs such as blueweed (Echium vulgare).

Echium wildpretii (left) in Tenerife and one of its closest relative from mainland (Echium vulgare) on the right. Source: Wikimedia.

Also in the Macaronesia, we find another example in the Euphorbiaceae family. Euphorbia mellifera, endemic to the Canary Islands and Madeira and E. stygiana endemic to Azores are endangered or critically endangered trees according to the IUCN, which can grow up to 15 meters high, being part of the laurisilva vegetation, a subtropical humid forest typical from Macaronesia. Their nearest relatives are Mediterranean herbaceous species.

Euphorbia mellifera in Maderia (left) and one of his closest relatives from the Mediterraneum basin (right, E. palustris). Source: left Laia Barres González and right Wikimedia.

In the animal kingdom, we also find peculiar adaptations. Herbivorous inhabiting islands usually have no predators or competitors, triggering appearance of larger species than in the mainland, where large carnivores avoid this characteristics incompatibles with hiding or escaping.

One of the most famous examples of island gigantism are the Galapagos giant tortoises (Chelonoidis nigra complex), including about 10 different species, many endemic to a single island of the archipelago. This turtles are the most long-lived and largest in the world. They can reach two meters in length and 450 kg in weight and can live more than 100 years.

Galapagos giant tourtle. Source: Wikipedia.

Also among the reptiles, there are the Gallotia giant lizards of the Canary Islands. There are several single island endemic species: G. auaritae in La Palma, believed extinct until the discovery of several individuals in 2007, G. bravoana in La Gomera, G. intermedia in Tenerife, G. simonyi in El Hierro and G. stehlini in Gran Canaria, among others. Among the giant lizards of the Canary Islands there is the extinct Gallotia goliath, reaching up to 1 m length and currently being included in the G. simony circumscription.

Gallotia stehlini in Gran Canaria. Source: El coleccionista de instantes Fotografía & Vídeo via Flickr.

Another example is Flores island in Indonesia, where we found a giant rat (Papagomys armandvillei) doubling the common rat in size. Interestingly, hominid fossils having experiences the contrary process were also found in this island, since it was dwarf primate compared to the Homo sapiens current size. It is Homo floresiensis, who was only 1 meter tall and weighed 25 kg. It became extinct about 50,000 years and coexisted with Homo sapiens.

Giant rat (Papagomys armandvillei) from Flores. Source: Wikimedia.

Dwarfism is another evolutionary process that may occur on islands caused by the lack of resources in some islands, compared to mainland.

Unfortunately, islands holds a peculiar and unique biota that is suffering from of exploitation and extinction. The islands conservation biology helps to understand and preserve this natural heritage so rich and unique.



Barahona, F.; Evans, S. E.; Mateo, J.A.; García-Márquez, M. & López-Jurado, L.F. 2000. Endemism, gigantism and extinction in island lizards: the genus Gallotia on the Canary Islands. Journal of Zoology 250: 373-388.

Böhle, U.R., Hilger, H.H. & Martin, W.F. 2001. Island colonization and evolution of the insular woody habit in Echium L. (Boraginaceae). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 93: 11740-11745.

Carlquist, S.J. 1974. Island biology. New York: Columbia University Press.

 Foster, J.B. 1964. The evolution of mammals on islands. Nature 202: 234–235.

Whittaker, R.J. & Fernández-Palacios, J.M. 2007. Island biogeography: ecology, evolution, and conservation, 2nd edn. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

The living space of organisms

We all have our own living space, the place where we feel comfortable, like we were at home. We also have our routines, habits and that list of preferences that make us unique. Each of us, ultimately, have our own ecological niche, an extensive concept for each species that share the Earth with us. From it comes an important ecological processes such as competition or speciation, a key concepts for understanding the assembly and dynamics of natural ecosystems.


When you are asked how you would describe close people, the first thing that comes to your mind is their way of being when you’re with them and what they loves to do. We know what is the first thing they always ask in a restaurant, what annoys them, what sites they like to frequent, what they like to do when they have free time and even how they behave when they like someone. If we have also lived with them, we could guess almost their daily routine since they wake up until they go to bed. Although we do not always have the same behaviour, there are many traits, hobbies and routines that characterize and differentiate us. Each of us have our comfort zone, our hobbies, food preferences and people with whom we love spending our free time.

The dietary preferences of each of us and our routines and hobbies serve as a comparison to illustrate the diversity of ecological niches in the natural world. Source: Flickr, George Redgrave.


This “living space” that all of us have and in which we feel identified, is also comparable to the ecological niche of the organisms. The ecological niche of a species is a concept that always has been presented us as the “occupation”, “profession” or “work” that an organism carries up in the place where it lives (Wikipedia or CONICET), but the definition includes more than that. Hutchinson (1957) defined it as: ” n-dimensional hypervolume, where the dimensions are environmental conditions and resources, that define the requirements of a species to persist over time.” Despite the confusing definition, it is interested to point out the term “n-dimensional” as the ecological niche is based on this idea. An ecological niche is nothing more than all those multidimensional species requirements. In other words, the ecological niche of a species would be everything that involve the species and make it to prosper and survive where it is. Refers, ultimately, to all those variables that affect them in their daily lives, both biological variables -the contact with other species- and the physical and chemical ones-the climate and the habitat where they live-. An ecological niche of a species would be the spectrum of food it eats or can consume, the time of the day in which it is active to perform its functions, the time of the year and the way it carries out the reproduction, the predators and preys, the habitat it tolerates and all those physical and chemical factors that allow this species to remain viable.

These 5 species of warblers of North America seem to occupy the same habitat (the fir), but actually not. The truth is that each warbler occupies a different position in the tree. Source: Biology forums.

To give an illustrative example, let us place ourselves in the African savannah. The main grazing ungulates and those which perform mass migrations are compound by zebras, wildebeest and Thomson’s gazelles. At first glance, you might think that their ecological niche is very similar: same habitat, same routine, same predators and same food. The same food? Absolutely not. During migration, zebras go ahead, devouring tall grass, which is the worst quality. They are followed by wildebeest, which eat what remains standing, and these are followed by Thomson gazelle, which eat the high-quality grass, which is starting to grow again.

Although at first glance it may seem that feed on the same food, each species focuses on a different part of the plant. Source: Abierto por vacaciones.


The competitive exclusion principle, proposed by Gause (1934), states that two species occupying the same niche can not coexist in the long term as they come into competition for resources. Thus, in a competitive process for the same ecological niche, there is always a winner and a loser. In the end, one of the competitors is imposed by another, and then two things can happen: the extinction of the loser one (image A) or a traits displacement in order to occupy another niche (image B). In fact, the competitive exclusion principle is behind the current problems with invasive species. Invasive species niche is very similar to native species niche and, when they converge in the same habitat, the invasive species end up displacing native species, as they are better ecological competitors. It also often happens, of course, the opposite: the exotic species is worse than its counterpart and the competitor fails to thrive in the new environment.

Image A | This study was conducted in order to observe the effect of competitive exclusion in two species of protists. Both species occupy almost identical ecological niches, but they are not living together in nature. The density of one falls sharply when they are forced to share the same space, until it eventually disappears. This same process occurs with invasive species. Source: Jocie Broth.
Image B | When the 3 species of Darwin’s finches (in different colors) coexist on the same island, a trait displacement occurs by competitive exclusion. Individuals from the ends tend to have very similar bill depths to those of the other species, resulting in a niche overlap and subsequent competition. The final boundaries are established thanks to this process. Source: Nature.


We have seen that to share ecological niche is synonymous of having conflict between species. However, there is a situation in which problem do not take place. The hypothesis of functional equivalence proposed by Hubbell proclaims that if the niches are identical and the species life parameters (fertility, mortality, dispersion) are also the same, none of them has a competitive advantage over the other, and the battle ends in tables. This fact seems to occur only in a very stable ecosystem in a Panama rainforest island (Barro Colorado). Different species of trees, as having almost identical parameters of life, do not compete between them and are distributed randomly, as if the individuals of different species belong to the same species. Furthermore, it seems that speciation in this kind of rainforest could also occur by chance, which would have caused the high density of species that harbor these forests.

Tropical forests have a tree species density unique in the world. One hectare of tropical forest may contain up to 650 tree species, more than the number of tree species present in both Canada and continental US. Will Hubbell’s functional equivalence theory be behind the explanation for this curious fact? Source: Flickr, Jo.


Speciation, or the creation of new species, usually occurs when new ecological niches are created or the existing become unoccupied. In both cases, to occupy a new ecological niche imply a gradual differentiation from the initial population to become a genetically distinct species. As an example of formation of new ecological niches we have the case of the emergence of angiosperms. Their booming opened many new possibilities, thanks both to increasing diversity of seeds and fruits (which, in turn, increased the number of specialized species) and the emergence of complex flowers, which allowed the explosion of many pollinators (facilitating the emergence of new insectivores). As an example of unoccupied niche, there is the famous case of the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs. Dinosaurs dominated a lot of niches, from land to air ecosystems, and even the aquatic environment. Those empty niches was occupied by many mammals, thanks to their high fertility and plasticity (flexibility to adapt into different habitats). That eventually led large ratios of speciation in a short time, what is known as adaptive radiation.

This is Eomaia scansoria, an extinct species of mammals that lived at the same time as the dinosaurs. The extinction of the dinosaurs opened up a wide range of possibilities to mammals, which, although they were expanding, remained in the background. Their great plasticity led them to colonize many habitats, by occupying the free ecological niches left by the dinosaurs. Source: Wikipedia.


As we have seen, the ecological niche is behind fundamental ecological and evolutionary processes. All living communities today have been formed thanks to the niches of different species. Through competition, species niches were overlaping, and the communities were assembled like a puzzle. When a piece disappears, another takes its place, playing the role that the other had in the community. However, knowing the whole ecological niche of a species is arduous and, in most cases, impossible. As in human relationships, an exhaustive knowledge of everything that influences the life of a species (or the living space of a person) is of great importance in order to ensure their long-term preservation.



Evolution for beginners

Biological evolution is still not well understood by general public, and when we speak of it in our language abound expressions that confuse even more how mechanisms that lead to species diversity work. Through questions you may have ever asked yourself, in this article we will have a first look at the basic principles of evolution and debunk misconceptions about it.


Outside the scientific field, the word “theory” is used to refer to events that have not been tested or assumptions. But a scientific theory is the explanation of a phenomenon supported by evidence resulting from the application of the scientific method.

scientific method
The scientific method. Image by Margreet de Heer.

Theories can be modified, improved or revised if new data don’t continue to support the theory, but they are always based on some data, repeatable and verifiable experiments by any researcher to be considered valid.

So few people (sic) doubts about the heliocentric theory (the Earth rotates around the Sun), or the gravitational theory of Newton, but in the popular imagination some people believe that the theory of evolution made by Charles Darwin (and Alfred Russell Wallace) is simply a hypothesis and has no evidence to support it. With new scientific advances, his theory has been improved and detailed, but more than 150 years later, nobody has been able to prove it wrong, just the contrary.


We have many evidences and in this post we will not delve into them. Some of the evidence available to us are:

  • Paleontological record: the study of fossils tell us about the similarities and differences of existing species with others thousands or millions old, and to establish relationships respect each other.
  • Comparative anatomy: comparison of certain structures that are very similar between different organisms, can establish whether they have a common ancestor (homologous structures, for example, five fingers in some vertebrates) if they have developed similar adaptations (analogous structures, for example, the wings of birds and insects), or if they have lost their function (vestigial organs, such as the appendix).
Homologous organs in humans, cats, whales and bats
Homologous organs in humans, cats, whales and bats
  • Embryology: the study of embryos of related groups shows a strong resemblance in the earliest stages of development.
  • Biogeography: The study of the geographical distribution of living beings reveals that species generally inhabit the same regions as their ancestors, although there are other regions with similar climates.
  • Biochemistry and genetics: chemical similarities and differences allow to establish relationships among different species. For example, species closely related to each other have a structure of their DNA more similar than others more distant. All living beings share a portion of DNA that is part of your “instructions”, so there are also found in a fly, a plant or a bacterium, proof that all living things have a common ancestor.


Both expressions, frequently used, mean that living beings have an active role to adapt to the environment or “someone” has designed them to live exactly where they are. It is a typical example of Lamarck and giraffes: as a result of stretching the neck to reach the higher leaves of the treescurrently giraffes have this neck for giving it this use. They have a necessity, they change their bodies to success. It is precisely upside down: it is the habitat that selects the fittest, nature “selects” those that are most effective to survive, and therefore reproduce. It is what is known as natural selection, one of the main mechanisms of evolution. It needs three requirements to act:

  • Phenotypic variability: there must be differences between individuals. Some giraffes necks were slightly longer than others, just as there are taller people than others, with blue or brown eyes.
  • Biological fitness: this difference has to suppose an advantage. For example, giraffes with a slightly longer neck could survive and reproduce, while the others don’t.
  • Heredity: these characters must be transmitted to the next generation, the offspring will be slightly different to that feature, while “short neck” feature transmits less and less.
natural selection
The variability in the population causes individuals with favorable characteristics to reproduce more and pass on their genes to the next generation, increasing the proportion of those genes. Image taken from Understanding evolution

Over the years these changes are accumulated until the genetic differences are so big that some populations may not mate with others: a new species has appeared.

If you thought that this is similar to artificial selection that we do with the different breeds of dogs, cows who give more milk, trees bearing more fruit and larger, congratulations, you think like Darwin as it was inspired by some of these facts. Therefore, living beings are mere spectators of the evolutionary process, depending of changes in their habitat and their genetic material.


Genetic variability allows natural selection act. Changes in the genetic material (usually DNA) are caused by:

  • Mutations: changes in the genome that may be adverse or lethal for survival, indifferent or beneficial to survival and reproduction. If they have benefits, they will pass to the next generations.
  • Gene flow: is the motion of genes between populations (migration of individuals allows this exchange when mate with others in a different population).
  • Sexual reproduction: allows recombination of genetic material of different individuals, giving rise to new combinations of DNA.

Populations that have more genetic variability are more likely to survive if happen any changes in their habitat. Populations with less variability (eg, being geographically isolated) are more sensitive to any changes in their habitat, which may cause their extinction.

Evolution can be observed in beings with a very high reproduction rate, for example bacteria, since mutations accumulate more quickly. Have you ever heard that bacteria become resistant to our antibiotics or some insects to pesticides? They evolve so quickly that within a few years were selected the fittest to survive our antibiotics.


Theory of Evolution has various consequences, such as the existence of a common ancestor and that therefore, that we are animals. Even today, and even among the young ones, there is the idea that we are something different between living beings and we are in a special podium in the collective imagination. This anthropocentric thinking caused Darwin mockery and confrontations over 150 years ago.

caricatura, darwin, mono, orangutan
Caricature of Darwin as an orangutan. Public domain image first published in 1871

We use our language to be “more evolved” as a synonym for more complex, and we consider ourselves one species that has reached a high level of understanding of their environment, so many people believe that evolution has come to an end with us.

The question has a mistake of formulation: actually evolving pursues no end, it just happens, and the fact that millions of years allows the emergence of complex structures, it does not mean that simpler lifeforms are not perfectly matched in the habitat where they are. Bacteria, algae, sharks, crocodiles, etc., have remained very similar over millions of years. Evolution is a process that started acting when life first appeared and continues to act in all organisms, including us, although we have changed the way in which natural selection works  (medical and technological breakthroughs, etc.).


The truth is that we don’t come from monkeys, we are monkeys, or to be more rigorous, apes. We have not evolved from any existing primate. As we saw in a previous post, humans and other primates share a common ancestor and natural selection has been acting differently in each of us. That is, evolution has to be viewed as a tree, and not as a straight line, where each branch would be a species .

darwin, árbol, evolución, darwin tree, arbre evolutiu
First scheme of the evolutionary tree of Darwin in his notebook (1837). Public domain image.

Some branches stop growing (species become extinct), while others continue to diversify. The same applies to other species, in case you have asked yourself, “if amphibians come from fish, why are there still fish?”. Currently, genetic analyzes have contributed so much data that they make so difficult to redesign the classical Dariwn’s tree.

árbol filogenético, clasificación seres vivos, árbol de la vida
Classification of live organisms based on the three domains Archaea, Bacteria and Eukarya, data of Carl R. Woese (1990). Included in Eukarya there are the Protista, Fungi, Plantae and Animalia kingdoms. Image by Rita Daniela Fernández.

Evolution is a very broad topic that still generates doubts and controversies. In this article we have tried to bring to uninitiated people some basics, where we can delve into the future. Do you have any questions about evolution? Are you interested into a subject that we have not talked about? You can leave your comments below.