Convergent & Divergent Evolution: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Evolution
  • 1:05 Divergent Evolution
  • 3:52 Convergent Evolution
  • 5:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Julie Zundel

Julie has taught high school Zoology, Biology, Physical Science and Chem Tech. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Education.

Ever wonder why birds and bees both have wings, even if they aren't related? This lesson will examine that question. In addition, it will define and explain convergent and divergent evolution and will give examples of each.


Evolution is the process where organisms change over time. Of course, when you think of evolution, images of fish growing legs and walking on land may come to mind. But evolution is a slow process, taking thousands or even millions of years, so fish don't suddenly sprout legs and walk out of the water.

In this lesson, we are going to explore divergent and convergent evolution so you can have a better idea of why organisms look the way they do! Both of these types of evolution are going to be impacted by environmental selective pressures. In other words, those organisms best suited to an environment will be able to survive and reproduce, passing on their genes as they do so. Organisms that are not well-suited will die off, as will their genes.

It's also important to remember that a population must have a lot of variety in order for this to happen. For example, consider variation in humans: some are tall, some are short, some have red hair, some have black hair, some are light-skinned, and others are dark-skinned. Like humans, other organisms have a lot of variation within a population.

Divergent Evolution

We are going to follow a group of imaginary critters, which we'll call the Blumps, through the process of divergent evolution to help us understand it. Divergent evolution is the process whereby members of a species become more and more different, eventually resulting in two (or more) new species. In other words, the Blumps will 'diverge,' thus creating a new species. Remember, like humans, the Blumps have a lot of variation: some are large and some are small, and some are darker and some are lighter.

One spring, a flood disrupts the Blumps' environment, causing the population to be divided. On one side of the water it's marshy, and on the other side it's mountainous. The population remains divided for millions of years, and each new environment has unique selective pressures.

For example, the marshy side suits light, small Blumps that can blend in with the grasses and sneak up on prey (and hide from predators). The mountainous side favors Blumps that are large and dark. The darker, larger Blumps blend in with the landscape and are able to navigate the large mountainous peaks. Because the Blumps that are best suited for each environment survive and reproduce, over time the marshy side has predominantly light, small Blumps and the mountainous side has predominantly dark, large Blumps. Over hundreds of generations, the two populations of Blumps become more and more different and eventually become two separate species. And, viola, you have divergent evolution!

Adaptive radiation is a type of divergent evolution where a group of organisms quickly diverges into new species. Now, when you hear the word 'quickly' you might think of only a few days, but 'quickly' in evolutionary terms is much longer - like 500,000 years or more. So keep that in mind, and realize these things don't happen overnight! This process gets the name 'radiation' because new species radiate from a common ancestor. This tends to occur when organisms move into a new environment with a lot of available opportunities.

To help us understand this, let's talk about a real-life example. On the Galapagos Islands, there are many species of finch. When Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos, he noted that the islands' finches looked a lot alike, yet some had key differences like the size and shape of their beaks. As the population of finches encountered each new island, those best suited to eat the food on that island would survive and reproduce. The common ancestor of the finches underwent adaptive radiation, with several new species developing. For example, on one island where seeds were plentiful, the finches that had the beaks best suited for seed eating survived and reproduced. On another island, the finches best suited for insect eating survived and reproduced. In the end, there were many new finch species, each with slightly different beaks.

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