Natural Selection

Ecology, Genetics, Zoology

Natural Selection Definition

Natural selection is the process that causes groups of organisms to change, or evolve, over time. Considering that animals must inherit their genetics from their parents or ancestors, and that the environment is constantly changing, it can be seen that no organism is perfectly adapted to its environment. If a parent were perfectly adapted to the environment, the environment will change, leaving the offspring maladapted to the environment. Luckily for all organisms, genetic variability causes each individual to be slightly different. These slight differences in performance can lead to differences in the amount each individual reproduces. By reproducing more, an individual creates more of the genetic variabilities that helped it succeed. The offspring of these individuals will also benefit from the genetic variables that allowed for their parents to succeed. Organisms without these genetic adaptations will not reproduce as much, and in this way their lines will someday cease to exist. Nature constantly exerts a selective force on the different genetic combinations that try to reproduce.

There is an incredible variety of selective forces in the natural world, ranging from interspecies competition, to predator-prey dynamics, to sexual selection between the different genders. The defining characteristic of natural selection is that it is a force that allows some organisms to reproduce more than others. Natural selection does not always lead to the “right” answer, as some people tend to think. Natural selection is an imperfect process. It cannot create new DNA spontaneously, or change the DNA it is given in meaningful ways. It can only slow or stop the reproduction of some DNA, while allowing other DNA to persist. Every population has the opportunity to adapt, migrate to different conditions, or go extinct in the face of natural selection.

The process of natural selection screens the DNA it is given, with the minor mutations and recombination that occurs during replication, and simply does not let some DNA pass. Sometimes, the screen is random, as in a lighting strike killing a single tree. Other times, the screen is biased towards certain types of organisms, causing a selection to happen. This can be seen in the pine beetle invasion in North America. The pine beetles are being selected for, because they are exploiting a rich food source, and the pine trees are being selected against, for not having adequate defenses against the beetles. The following are more types and examples of natural selection.

Types and Examples of Natural Selection

As animals diversify, and fill different niches, the pressures exerted on them can change in many ways. The functional requirements to be bird are much different than those required to be a fish. Their food is different, the medium they exist in is different, and they must obtain oxygen in a different way. Natural selection thus selects for very different looking animals to fill the different niches of the ecosystem.

Regardless of the trait, natural selection tends to do one of three things to a population. It can keep the trait the same, stabilizing selection, move the trait in one direction, directional selection, or select for the extreme values of the trait, diversifying selection. In addition to being classified by the effects it causes, natural selection can also be classified by the relationships of the organisms causing the natural selection, and sometimes the selection can be made by abiotic factors. The previous are described below.

Type 1: Stabilizing Selection

Most traits in the animal kingdom can be described by a bell curve, in terms of their distribution. Most animals of a certain species tend to show the same trait or feature, of relatively the same size. There are always some exceptions of larger or smaller traits in certain individuals, but generally most individuals sit somewhere in the middle.

Stabilizing selection is a form of natural selection that screens against the outliers, or exceptions to the trait. The screen prevents those animals from reproducing as much as the “normal” or more regular individuals. Because of this bias, more babies are born that are “normal” and less outliers are seen in each consecutive generation. It is in this way that species can become very distinct from other species, yet all members of a species will look exactly alike.

Example of Stabilizing Selection

Because actual life is really complex, all of the following examples will be simplified hypothetical versions. For stabilizing selection, imagine a population of mice that lives in the woods. Some of the mice are black, some are white, and some are grey. If the mice had no predators, and no other forces acting on the color of their coat, it would have no reason to change and would only change randomly in response to certain mutations in the DNA. However, that is not the case with these mice. They have lots of predators.

In the daytime, the mice are preyed on by foxes and house cats from a nearby village. In the nighttime, the owls and other predators scour the dark for dinner. Either way, the mice are in a tough position. But not all the mice face the same risk at all times. In the daytime, the black mice are much easier to spot, and predators eat more black mice. At night, the white mice stand out like little lights to the owls, and many more white mice are eaten. The grey mice are the only ones who survive more both during the day and at night. By the next generation, there will be many less black and white mice to reproduce. The genes that produce the grey mice will be replicated more than the others, creating many more grey mice in the next generation.

After a few generations of a strong selective pressure, the entire population could be grey. It depends entirely on the genetic makeup of the trait, but in some cases a single trait is selected for and the rest are lost from the population. In other cases, the black and white traits could just become rarely seen traits. Retaining the traits can be an advantage when the predators change. For instance, if all the owls and night predators disappeared, it would be more beneficial to be black. The black mice would then take off, and become more frequent in the population.

Type 2: Directional Selection

Directional selection is a type of natural selection that occurs when one side of the spectrum of a certain trait is favored over the other. For instance, if the smallest organisms get eaten, and larger organisms are totally protected, the population will tend to get much larger. If the opposite is true, the population will decrease in size over time.

It is also using directional selection artificially that humans can create “miniature” breeds of animals, which look like tiny copies of their larger counterparts. The problem with this is that it often causes a variety of problems in the smaller animals, which having been selected for using only one trait. This allows many negative traits to become present in the population, which would have naturally been selected against.

Example of Directional Selection

It is important to consider different traits in the same population of animals. Imagine again the population of mice living in the woods. Instead of their color, consider a trait that runs on a continuous scale. Imagine that the mice vary in size from a normal sized mouse to something much larger than a rat. Although the mice are the same species, they grow into many different sizes. The predators, however, have a terrible time trying to catch and eat the largest of the mice. Not only do the large mice weigh more, but they can fight back. The smaller mice are mostly defenseless and provide the perfect sized snack.

If this were the case, and nothing were holding them back, the mice would get much larger. This is probably what happened in the case of the capybara, a giant South-American rodent. Like our fictional rodents, the pressures of their environment have caused them to be much larger than any other rodent known to man. Many rodents find different advantages in being small, which is why most rodents have remained a certain size. These advantages could be as simple as the ability to hide or the availability of food, but animals of certain sizes do better for different reasons, and populations can change size over time.

Type 3: Diversifying Selection

Much like directional selection, diversifying selection pushes the population towards the extremes of the trait. Diversifying selection, in contrast to directional selection, pushes the trait both ways. This can happen in a variety of ways, but it often leads to speciation because the populations can become so different. If only diversified for short times, however, the selection can lead to a variety of traits that can be shared by one species.

Example of Diversifying Selection

Okay, last time with the mice. But this time, consider a new trait in the population. Let’s imagine that some of the mice begin to grow skin flaps between their front and back legs. Effectively, it makes a parachute that allows them to glide away from predators. Mice that fully have the skin flaps do really well, and are almost always able to escape predators. Likewise, mice without the flaps avoid the trees and open spaces that mice with flaps venture into, and are much better at hiding from predators. The mice that fall somewhere in the middle are selected against the most.

Without the ability to glide away, mice somewhere in the middle cannot escape predators at a rate that can help them reap the benefits of the trees. At the same time, the half-flaps make it harder for them to run and hide from predators. Because of this weakness, many more of these mice from the middle of the spectrum are eaten. This begins to divide the population into two distinct traits. Eventually, this can lead to the mice becoming entirely different species.

It is possible that this is how bats became the only flying rodents. Much like the imaginary scenario described, there are real rodents that do not fly, some that can glide, and bats. While the common ancestor between all of these animals might not have been called a rodent, they are all mammals. Much like our imaginary scenario, diversifying selection could have caused population of the common ancestor to change and separate. In the real world, the selective pressures are much more complex, and we can only guess at the exact historical relationship between animals.

Type 4: Sexual Selection

While you can classify natural selection in terms of the effects it has on the population, you can also view it as the interaction between organisms with different relationships. Sexual selection is a kind of natural selection in which the different genders in a species exert forces on each other that changes their appearance. To humans, these traits often appear arbitrary, such as brightly colored feathers, the ability to do a ritualized dance, or certain nesting traits such as decorating, that don’t appear to serve a function in reproduction.

In many organisms, sexual reproduction is a highly competitive process. As such, organisms spend a considerable amount of time trying to pick a mate that will increase the success of their offspring. In some organisms, this comes down to the strongest or the biggest. Many organisms, however, have adapted complex mating rituals to identify potential mates. The sexual selection in these organism can yield some bizarre traits, as seen in many birds.

Example of Sexual Selection

Look at a peacock. Try to imagine a functional use of that ridiculous tail. Stumped? Scientists were too, until the mechanism of sexual selection was explained. This form of natural selection can sometimes select for functional adaptations, but often produces bizarre adaptations that only serve in attracting mates. In the case of the peacock, the colorful tail is used in a display meant to attract females. Males with larger tails and more dazzling colors are preferred to males with small tails. This peculiar preference seems to have no actual bearing on how successful the males could be in collecting food and reproducing, but because of the preference of the females, all male peacocks have large, colorful tails.

Interestingly, this pattern of males becoming the more decorated of the genders holds true for many bird species. Male ducks, many male tropical birds, and even the male common house sparrow are all much more decorated than their female counterparts. This can also be seen in some reptiles, and many animals have adapted strange displays or methods of decorating their nest to attract mates. The selection can work in both ways, and depends mostly on which sex can be choosier in selecting a mate.

Type 5: Predator-Prey Selection

Where sexual selection is an example of intraspecific selection, often multiple species can exert selection pressures on each other, also known as interspecific selection. While this exists in many forms, one of the most common is the predator-prey dynamic. The predators will always try to consume the easiest food source, which causes the prey to evolve to be harder to catch. When that happens, the predator is also selected in a way that causes the population to become more efficient predators. This cycle is continuous and predators and prey are constantly changing each other.

Example of Predator-Prey Selection

The cheetah is widely known as the fastest land predator (although new research shows that bats are actually faster). Cheetahs did not get extremely fast for no reason. The cheetah’s main prey item, the antelope, is fast as well. Which one got fast first will forever remain a mystery, but the fact is, these two species drive each other to be faster.
Faster cheetahs experience an advantage over other cheetahs in that they catch more antelope, and can support a much larger family. Eventually, slow cheetahs will die off, and the fast cheetah population will explode catching antelope. The antelope population, responding to the new selection, are also more successful when they are fast enough to avoid the cheetahs. Thus the antelope population is also being directionally selected for faster animals.

Scientists theorize that this give-and-take between the predator and prey populations is responsible for shaping many of their defining traits. In fact, scientist were baffled why the American Pronghorn, a species that resembles antelope in size and speed, would exist considering the lack of cheetahs in North America. Without a predator fast enough to catch you, at a certain point the extra speed is of no great advantage. Scientists remained baffled until the fossils of a cheetah-like predator were found in North America, confirming the theory that they selected each other to be faster. Unlike the cheetahs of Africa the cheetahs of North America did not survive human expansion, and the pronghorn is left without a predator.

Other types of Natural Selection

Natural selection can come in an infinite variety of forms. Every organism will be more or less successful depending on what genes it carries and how those genes interact with the environment. Genes can cause novel ways of processing nutrients, allow for different structures to be formed, and allow for old structures to be repurposed. Completely different organisms occupying the same niche are often found to have similar structures. These structures where not obtained from a common ancestor but from the forces of natural selection alone. Natural selection is the primary driving force behind all the different forms and functions of life on Earth.

Related Biology Terms

  • Evolution – A change in a population of organisms over time.
  • Niche – A functional segment of an ecosystem, which can provide enough nutrients for an organism to survive.
  • Gene – A segment of DNA which produces a characteristic of an organism.
  • Mutation – A spontaneous change in the DNA which can lead to new forms and functions, or can lead to the demise of an organism.


1. A population of lizards come in three colors: blue, red and purple. A new predator becomes active in the environment the lizards live in. The predator prefers blue and red lizards, allowing the purple lizards to become the most prominent colors. Which type of natural selection is this an example of?
A. Directional Selection
B. Stabilizing Selection
C. Diversifying Selection

Answer to Question #1

2. A group of birds in the Galapagos Islands known as Darwin’s Finches have a variety of different beaks that serve different functions. It was found in a historic study that these beaks arose from different conditions on the islands favoring different plant life and forms of seeds. In the case of the beaks, which type of selection is at work?
A. Sexual Selection
B. Predator-Prey Selection
C. Abiotic Selection

Answer to Question #2

3. Two flamingos have different mutations in their colors. One flamingo is light pink, while the other flamingo is a much darker pink. Both flamingos successfully raise 10 offspring before they die. Which type of selection is at work?
A. Sexual Selection
B. Predator-Prey Selection
C. None

Answer to Question #3

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