Evolutionary Processes

Does the ability to adapt ensure survival?
Answered by Ellen Stockstill and Animal Planet
  • Ellen Stockstill

    Ellen Stockstill

  • Animal Planet

    Animal Planet

  1. From an evolutionary standpoint, yes, adaptation does ultimately ensure survival. The term "adaptation" refers to an evolutionary change or process that occurs in a population and leaves it better able to survive within its environment. A population typically refers to a species of plant or animal; the changes that occur can encompass behaviors, like how the population responds to external stimuli such as fear, or physical attributes, such as body parts or fur patterns. These evolutionary adaptations typically take extensive amounts of time; they can occur over many generations or millions of years.

    The concept of adaptation is closely linked to evolution, a concept propagated by Charles Darwin, who argued that natural selection, or the tendency for well-adapted creatures to reproduce while ill-suited ones did not survive their environment, would lead to evolutionary changes. He theorized that the well-adapted beings' genes and attributes would become dominant after generations of reproduction.

    Evidence of adaptation and survival surrounds us. For instance, consider the United Kingdom's peppered moth. At the beginning of the industrial revolution, the moth was light-colored, but gradually started appearing with a darker hue. At this time, UK factories were emitting a great deal of soot, which blackened the landscape. Darker colored moths had a higher survival rate, as they were camouflaged from predators against the landscape. It's even more interesting to note that today, as less emissions pollute the air and landscape, darker colored moths are diminishing in numbers.

    Plants adapt to their environment, as well. Most plants require a good deal of water, and could not survive in a desert climate; however, cacti thrive in the arid desert. The cactus has managed to adapt in such a way that its surface has a waxy covering and does not lose water, its pointy needles protect its surface from wind so that there is even less of a chance for water in or on the cactus to evaporate, and it also has extremely long roots allowing it to find any remote water source that may exist. These are all examples of how the cactus has adapted to survive its extreme environment.

    Finally, adaptations aren't always physical. Some behavioral adaptations include birds and other wildlife migrating during seasons that leave their environment uninhabitable, or salmon swimming upstream to reproduce in safer waters. These behaviors have been adapted over generations and ultimately help ensure survival.

    More answers from Ellen Stockstill »

  2. Yes -- sometimes, challenges within an environment create a need for a species to adapt in order to survive. Those that adapt live on to pass on their genes. For example, for our ancestors, in a time of drought, someone who had a genetic makeup that allowed her to walk farther to get to a water source may have had a better chance of surviving and then reproducing over someone who didn't. That person passed along her genes to the next generation, meaning her genes were selected to continue on because of the ability to adapt to the environment.

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