Adaptive radiation

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Four of the 14 finch species found on the Galápagos Archipelago, are thought to have evolved by an adaptive radiation that diversified their beak shapes to adapt them to different food sources.

In evolutionary biology, adaptive radiation is a process in which organisms diversify rapidly into a multitude of new forms, particularly when a change in the environment makes new resources available, creates new challenges and opens environmental niches.[1][2] Starting with a recent single ancestor, this process results in the speciation and phenotypic adaptation of an array of species exhibiting different morphological and physiological traits with which they can exploit a range of divergent environments.[2]

Adaptive radiation, a characteristic example of cladogenesis, can be graphically illustrated as a "bush", or clade, of coexisting species (on the tree of life). [3] Caribbean anoline lizards are a particularly interesting example of an adaptive radiation.[4] The Hawaiian islands are very isolated and contribute numerous examples of adaptive radiation. An exceptional example of adaptive radiation would be the avian species of the Hawaiian honeycreepers. Via natural selection, these birds adapted rapidly and converged based on the different environments of the Hawaiian islands. [5]

Much research has been done on adaptive radiation due to its dramatic effects on the diversity of a population. However, more research is needed, especially to fully understand the many factors affecting adaptive radiation. Both empirical and theoretical approaches are helpful, though each has its disadvantages. In order to procure the largest amount of data, empirical and theoretical approaches must be united. [6]


Four features can be used to identify an adaptive radiation:[2]

  1. A common ancestry of component species: specifically a recent ancestry. Note that this is not the same as a monophyly in which all descendants of a common ancestor are included.
  2. A phenotype-environment correlation: a significant association between environments and the morphological and physiological traits used to exploit those environments.
  3. Trait utility: the performance or fitness advantages of trait values in their corresponding environments.
  4. Rapid speciation: presence of one or more bursts in the emergence of new species around the time that ecological and phenotypic divergence is underway.



The evolution of a novel feature may permit a clade to diversify by making new areas of morphospace accessible. A classic example is the evolution of a fourth cusp in the mammalian tooth. This trait permits a vast increase in the range of foodstuffs which can be fed on. Evolution of this character has thus increased the number of ecological niches available to mammals. The trait arose a number of times in different groups during the Cenozoic, and in each instance was immediately followed by an adaptive radiation.[7] Birds find other ways to provide for each other, i.e. the evolution of flight opened new avenues for evolution to explore, initiating an adaptive radiation.[8] Other examples include placental gestation (for eutherian mammals), or bipedal locomotion (in hominins).[3]


Adaptive radiations often occur as a result of an organism arising in an environment with unoccupied niches, such as a newly formed lake or isolated island chain. The colonizing population may diversify rapidly to take advantage of all possible niches.

In Lake Victoria, an isolated lake which formed recently in the African rift valley, over 300 species of cichlid fish adaptively radiated from one parent species in just 15,000 years.

Adaptive radiations commonly follow mass extinctions: following an extinction, many niches are left vacant. A classic example of this is the replacement of the non-avian dinosaurs with mammals at the end of the Cretaceous, and of brachiopods by bivalves at the Permo-Triassic boundary.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Larsen, Clark S. (2011). Our Origins: Discovering Physical Anthropology (2 ed.). Norton. p. A11. 
  2. ^ a b c Schluter, Dolph (2000). The Ecology of Adaptive Radiation. Oxford University Press. pp. 10–11. ISBN 0-19-850523-X. 
  3. ^ a b Lewin, Roger (2005). Human evolution : an illustrated introduction (5th ed.). p. 21. ISBN 1-4051-0378-7. 
  4. ^ Parallel Adaptive Radiations - Caribbean Anoline Lizards. Tood Jackman. Villanova University. Retrieved 10 September 2013.
  5. ^ Reding, DM; Foster, JT; James, HF; Pratt, D; Fleischer, RC (2009). "Convergent evolution of 'creepers' in the Hawaiian honeycreeper radiation". Biology letters 5: 221–224. 
  6. ^ Gavrilets, S., & Losos, J. B. (2009). Adaptive radiation: contrasting theory with data. Science, 323(5915), 732-737.
  7. ^ Jernvall, J.; Hunter, J. P.; Fortelius, M. (1996). "Molar Tooth Diversity, Disparity, and Ecology in Cenozoic Ungulate Radiations". Science 274 (5292): 1489–1492. Bibcode:1996Sci...274.1489J. doi:10.1126/science.274.5292.1489. PMID 8929401.  edit
  8. ^ Feduccia, Alan (1999). The Origin and Evolution of Birds. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Wilson, E. et al. Life on Earth, by Wilson, E.; Eisner, T.; Briggs, W.; Dickerson, R.; Metzenberg, R.; O'brien,R.; Susman, M.; Boggs, W.; (Sinauer Associates, Inc., Publishers, Stamford, Connecticut), c 1974. Chapters: The Multiplication of Species; Biogeography, pp 824–877. 40 Graphs, w species pictures, also Tables, Photos, etc. Includes Galápagos Islands, Hawaii, and Australia subcontinent, (plus St. Helena Island, etc.).
  • Leakey, Richard. The Origin of Humankind—on adaptive radiation in biology and human evolution, pp. 28–32, 1994, Orion Publishing.
  • Grant, P.R. 1999. The ecology and evolution of Darwin's Finches. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
  • Mayr, Ernst. 2001. What evolution is. Basic Books, New York, NY.
  • Kemp, A.C. 1978. A review of the hornbills: biology and radiation. The Living Bird 17: 105–136.
  • Gavrilets, S. and A. Vose. 2005. Dynamic patterns of adaptive radiation Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 102: 18040-18045.
  • Gavrilets, S. and A. Vose. 2009. Dynamic patterns of adaptive radiation: evolution of mating preferences. In Butlin, RK, J Bridle, and D Schluter (eds) Speciation and Patterns of Diversity, Cambridge University Press, page. 102–126.