An Example of Rapid Adaptation: The Peppered Moths

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  • 0:06 Designed to Blend In
  • 0:46 The Peppered Moths
  • 2:59 Natural Selection in Action
  • 4:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Normally, adaptations occur over thousands or millions of years. However, drastic changes in the environment can shorten the time period in which a change comes about. In such cases, we can learn a lot about the evolutionary process and how natural selection drives it forward.

Designed to Blend In

Wouldn't it be great to be a chameleon? You could just blend in with whatever was around you. No need to run from a hungry predator - you just disappear from sight! Unfortunately, other animals don't have this ability, so they have other ways of camouflaging themselves to blend in with their surroundings. Usually this works pretty well, because if you don't blend in, you get eaten!

But imagine that all of a sudden, the environment around you is drastically altered. Your camouflage is no longer beneficial if it doesn't help you hide. Worse yet, it may even make you stand out like a sore thumb, advertising your whereabouts like a big neon sign.

The Peppered Moths

This is exactly what happened to the peppered moths in England during the Industrial Revolution. Peppered moths got their name because they are a light gray color and look like they have been sprinkled with pepper. This coloration pattern helped the moths blend in with light-colored trees and lichen, protecting them from predators. This was a very good camouflage because the moths looked very much like the trees and lichen they rested on, sort of like a permanent chameleon color.

This all changed with the Industrial Revolution in England, which began in the late 1700s and ended about 80 years later. The Industrial Revolution was a time of great change. Machines replaced much of the work that was done by manual labor. Chemical manufacturing was increased, and biofuels, such as wood, were traded in for new fuels, like coal. Life was greatly improved for many people as power became more efficient and affordable. People were earning more money, traveling farther, and in general just able to get more done.

However, the pollution created by the Industrial Revolution had serious consequences both for humans and the environment. Remember the peppered moth? Well, the lichens they rested on began dying, and the trees became covered with soot. The soot turned the trees black, making the light-colored moths stand out in stark contrast. This made them easy targets for predators, and their numbers began to dwindle.

At the same time, though, the peppered moth was also thriving. How is this possible? Well, just like with any species, there are variations among individuals. Among the peppered moths, there were individuals that were much darker than the normal light color with black spots. These darker individuals would have stood out against the light-colored lichen and trees, but once the trees became darker in color, the darker moths suddenly became the ones blending in. This means they were less likely to be eaten by predators, which inevitably means they lived longer and could reproduce more successfully. So, while the light-colored moth was disappearing, the dark-colored moth was thriving.

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