Unit 4: Ecosystems // Section 8: Evolution and Natural Selection in Ecosystems
As species interact, their relationships with competitors, predators, and prey contribute to natural selection and thus influence their evolution over many generations. To illustrate this concept, consider how evolution has influenced the factors that affect the foraging efficiency of predators. This includes the predator's search time (how long it takes to find prey), its handling time (how hard it has to work to catch and kill it), and its prey profitability (the ratio of energy gained to energy spent handling prey). Characteristics that help predators to find, catch, and kill prey will enhance their chances of surviving and reproducing. Similarly, prey will profit from attributes that help avoid detection and make organisms harder to handle or less biologically profitable to eat.
These common goals drive natural selection for a wide range of traits and behaviors, including:
- Mimicry by either predators or prey. A predator such as a praying mantis that blends in with surrounding plants is better able to surprise its target. However, many prey species also engage in mimicry, developing markings similar to those of unpalatable species so that predators avoid them. For example, harmless viceroy butterflies have similar coloration to monarch butterflies, which store toxins in their tissues, so predators avoid viceroy butterflies.
- Optimal foraging strategies enable predators to obtain a maximum amount of net energy per unit of time spent foraging. Predators are more likely to survive and reproduce if they restrict their diets to prey that provide the most energy per unit of handling time and focus on areas that are rich with prey or that are close together. The Ideal Free Distribution model suggests that organisms that are able to move will distribute themselves according to the amount of food available, with higher concentrations of organisms located near higher concentrations of food (footnote 8). Many exceptions have been documented, but this theory is a good general predictor of animal behavior.
- Avoidance/escape features help prey elude predators. These attributes may be behavioral patterns, such as animal herding or fish schooling to make individual organisms harder to pick out. Markings can confuse and disorient predators: for example, the automeris moth has false eye spots on its hind wings that misdirect predators (Fig. 14).
- Features that increase handling time help to discourage predators. Spines serve this function for many plants and animals, and shells make crustaceans and mollusks harder to eat. Behaviors can also make prey harder to handle: squid and octopus emit clouds of ink that distract and confuse attackers, while hedgehogs and porcupines increase the effectiveness of their protective spines by rolling up in a ball to conceal their vulnerable underbellies.
- Some plants and animals emit noxious chemical substances to make themselves less profitable as prey. These protective substances may be bad-tasting, antimicrobial, or toxic. Many species that use noxious substances as protection have evolved bright coloration that signals their identity to would-be predators—for example, the black and yellow coloration of bees, wasps, and yellowjackets. The substances may be generalist defenses that protect against a range of threats, or specialist compounds developed to ward off one major predator. Sometimes specialized predators are able overcome these noxious substances: for example, ragwort contains toxins that can poison horses and cattle grazing on it, but it is the exclusive food of cinnabar moth caterpillars. Ragwort toxin is stored in the caterpillars' bodies and eventually protects them as moths from being eaten by birds.
Figure 14. Automeris moth
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Source: © D.H. Jansen and Winnie Hallwachs, janzen.sas.upenn.edu.
Natural selection based on features that make predators and prey more likely to survive can generate predator-prey "arms races," with improvements in prey defenses triggering counter-improvements in predator attack tools and vice versa over many generations. Many cases of predator-prey arms races have been identified. One widely known case is bats' use of echolocation to find insects. Tiger moths respond by emitting high-frequency clicks to "jam" bats' signals, but some bat species have overcome these measures through new techniques such as flying erratically to confuse moths or sending echolocation chirps at frequencies that moths cannot detect. This type of pattern involving two species that interact in important ways and evolve in a series of reciprocal genetic steps is called coevolution and represents an important factor in adaptation and the evolution of new biological species.
Other types of relationship, such as competition, also affect evolution and the characteristics of individual species. For example, if a species has an opportunity to move into a vacant niche, the shift may facilitate evolutionary changes over succeeding generations because the species plays a different ecological role in the new niche. By the early 20th century, large predators such as wolves and puma had been largely eliminated from the eastern United States. This has allowed coyotes, who compete with wolves where they are found together, to spread throughout urban, suburban, and rural habitats in the eastern states, including surprising locations such as Cape Cod in Massachusetts and Central Park in New York City. Research suggests that northeastern coyotes are slightly larger than their counterparts in western states, although it is not yet clear whether this is because the northeastern animals are hybridizing with wolves and domestic dogs or because they have adapted genetically to preying on larger species such as white-tailed deer (footnote 9).