The English naturalist Charles Darwin , in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection , recognized the problem of determining whether a feature evolved for the function it currently serves:. The sutures of the skulls of young mammals have been advanced as a beautiful adaptation for aiding parturition [birth], and no doubt they facilitate , or may be indispensable for this act; but as sutures occur in the skulls of young birds and reptiles, which only have to escape from a broken egg, we may infer that this structure has arisen from the laws of growth, and has been taken advantage of in the parturition of the higher animals.
Thus, before explaining that a trait is an adaptation, it is necessary to identify whether it is also shown in ancestors and therefore may have evolved historically for different functions from those that it now serves. Another problem in designating a trait as an adaptation is that the trait may be a necessary consequence, or constraint, of physics or chemistry.
One of the most common forms of constraint involves the function of anatomical traits that differ in size. For example, canine teeth are larger in carnivores than in herbivores. This difference in size is often explained as an adaptation for predation. However, the size of canine teeth is also related to overall body size such scaling is known as allometry , as shown by large carnivores such as leopards that have bigger canines than do small carnivores such as weasels.
Thus, differences in many animal and plant characteristics, such as the sizes of young, duration of developmental periods e. Adaptive explanations in biology are difficult to test because they include many traits and require different methodologies. Experimental approaches are important for showing that any small variability, as in many physiological or behavioral differences, is an adaptation. The most rigorous methods are those that combine experimental approaches with information from natural settings—for example, in showing that the beaks of different species of Galapagos finch are shaped differently because they are adapted to feed on seeds of different sizes.
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The comparative method , using comparisons across species that have evolved independently, is an effective means for studying historical and physical constraints. This approach involves using statistical methods to account for differences in size allometry and evolutionary trees phylogenies for tracing trait evolution among lineages. We welcome suggested improvements to any of our articles.
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Start Your Free Trial Today. Learn More in these related Britannica articles: reproductive behaviour: Protective adaptations. A number of adaptations have evolved to protect the eggs and larvae of species not attended by adults. In one such adaptation, the eggs or larvae are distasteful, inedible, or apparently harmful to potential enemies. The eggs of the jellyfish Bougainvillia , for example, contain…. When two reproductive cells from somewhat unlike parents come together and fuse, the resulting product of development is never exactly the same as either parent.
On the other hand, when new individuals, plant or animal, develop from cuttings, buds, or body…. A developing organism is subjected to natural selection by its particular environment. The environment is not the same for all individuals of a population, nor does it necessarily remain the same throughout evolutionary periods of time.
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An organism can…. A great variety of structural adaptations have evolved in hymenopterans, and several interesting ones will be discussed here. In worker bees, hairs on the tarsi of the forelegs are used to brush pollen from flowers.
The tarsi of the forelegs and middle legs are…. History at your fingertips. Sign up here to see what happened On This Day , every day in your inbox! By signing up, you agree to our Privacy Notice.
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Be on the lookout for your Britannica newsletter to get trusted stories delivered right to your inbox. More About Adaptation 29 references found in Britannica articles Assorted References biota of inland waters In inland water ecosystem: Biota of inland waters work of Darwin In evolution: Charles Darwin In life: Genetic physiology cellular change In human disease: Adaptation eye arrangement In eye disease: Strabismus squint integumentary systems In integument: Embryology and evolution reproductive processes In pollination: Types: self-pollination and cross-pollination In sex: The adaptive significance of sex sensory organs In human sensory reception: Factors affecting taste sensitivity In human sensory reception: Odour sensitivity View More.
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