6 Animals That Are Rapidly Evolving

istock
istock

We sometimes think of evolution as a thing of the past, but it continues today, especially as environmental pressures force humans and animals to adapt to survive. Here, a few examples of animals evolving in real-time.

1. The lizard with extra sticky feet

The native green lizards that occupy the lower branches and trunks of Florida’s trees got a rude awakening when their invasive cousins, the brown lizards, moved in. Faced with limited resources and double the competition, the green lizards made a move: they abandoned the lower branches for the treetops. Up there, the limbs are thinner and smoother, so the green lizards’ bodies had to adapt to the environmental shift. To better cling to the smooth branches, their toepads grew bigger and their scales got stickier—in just 15 years and about 20 generations. “The degree and quickness with which they evolved was surprising," said Yoel Stuart, a postdoctoral researcher in the College of Natural Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin and lead author of the study. "If human height were evolving as fast as these lizards' toes, the height of an average American man would increase from about 5 foot 9 inches today to about 6 foot 4 inches within 20 generations." 

2. The shrimp that lost its eyes

In the process of evolutionary change, you either use it or you lose it—and this is certainly true for a group of cave-dwelling crustaceans. These crabs and shrimp live underground where there is no light, and the sense of sight doesn’t do much good. As a result, they’ve gone blind, relying on smell and touch to navigate the cavernous depths. When researchers compared the brains of these spelunkers to their land-dwelling relatives, they found that not only are these creatures sightless, they’re actually losing the parts of their brains associated with vision. Meanwhile, the areas that control touch and smell are getting bigger. "It's a nice example of life conditions changing the neuroanatomy," the study’s lead author, Dr. Martin Stegner, from the University of Rostock in Germany, told the BBC. It’s taken about 200 million years for the brain changes to occur, which may not seem “rapid,” but as the Washington Post’s Rachel Feltman says, it’s “a relatively short time, in the evolutionary scheme of things.”

3. The owls that are changing color

Climate change is forcing many animals to adapt to survive. The tawny owl in Finland is a good example. These creatures come in two colors, brown or pale grey. The cold white winters have traditionally favored the grey owls, which can hide from predators by blending into a snowy color scheme. But as the winters have become more mild over the last 50 years, researchers noticed a shift: grey owls are on the decline and the brown birds are thriving, better suited to blending into the bare brown branches of the forest. As more brown owls survive, more brown genes get passed down through generations. Until now, the researchers say, “an evolutionary response to a quantified selection pressure driven by climate change has not been empirically demonstrated in a wild population.”

4. The fish that’s migrating earlier

Climate change is also the driving force behind a recent behavioral shift in pink salmon. As water temperatures rise, the fish are migrating from the ocean to the river to spawn about two weeks earlier than they did 40 years ago. And this isn’t just a new behavior—it’s actually a change at the genetic level. Between the 1980s and 2011, the number of late-migrating salmon declined by 20 percent, according to Ryan Kovach, a population ecologist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. The change happened over just one or two generations, which suggests organisms can adapt to climate change very quickly. “We show that there has been a genetic shift towards earlier migration timing through what appears to be natural selection against the late-migrating individuals in the population,” Kovach says

5. The bedbugs with super-strength

Unfortunately, our long-running battle with these bed-hopping pests has backfired, producing bedbugs with thicker shells and nerve cells of steel to resist the harsh chemicals we lob at them. Bedbugs in New York City are now 250 times more resistant to pesticides than the bedbugs in Florida, according to researchers at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. "Insect resistance is nothing more than sped-up evolution," says insect toxicologist John Clark. 

6. The mouse that’s immune to poison

Bad news for anyone with a fear of mice: researchers have discovered a house mouse with an immunity to Warfarin, a type of poison typically deployed to fight infestations. The super mice were discovered in Germany, where the lowly house mouse bred with its poison-resistant distant cousin the Algerian mouse. The result? A hybrid mouse with a very useful genetic mutation that gives it a leg up over its rodent relatives. Usually hybrid animals can’t reproduce, but "sometimes there is the occasional odd hybrid that has just about the right novel combination of genomes from two species that renders them, at least temporarily, superior over the pure species," says the study’s lead author Michael Kohn. “We’ve caught evolution in the act.” 

All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise noted.

This Stylish Cardboard Box Is Designed to Be Your Cat’s New Favorite Hideout

Scott Salzman
Scott Salzman

You can buy your cat a fancy bed or perch, but when it comes right down to it, your feline friend is probably going to be more eager to curl up in the cardboard box that it arrived in. So why not just cut out the part where you spend time and money picking out something your cat couldn’t care less about? Just get a really nice box. That’s the premise behind the Purrfect Cat Box, a cardboard box specifically tailored to cats’ needs.

While every cat is finicky in his or her own way, almost all cats love a good cardboard box. (Seriously, it’s science.) Squeezing into a cozy box makes cats feel protected, and, since cats like warmer temperatures, the insulating cardboard also helps keep them at their preferred level of toasty.

Designed by Colorado-based inventor Scott Salzman, the Purrfect Cat Box is made to be just the right size for ultimate kitty comfort. At about the size of a shoebox, it’s big enough for most cats to squeeze into without being cramped—though Salzman doesn’t specify whether it will work for big breeds like Maine Coons—but small enough that they still feel protected inside. It has a small cutout in the front to allow your cat to peek his head outside the box, and, most importantly, to get in a really good chin scratch.

While we humans might find cardboard cars or cardboard Taj Mahal replicas adorable, most cats just want a plain box that makes them feel safe and comfortable. The geometric-patterned Purrfect Cat Box walks the line between utilitarian and chic, making the empty cardboard box in your living room a little bit less of an eyesore.

Plus, it’s cardboard-priced. At $6 a box, it's about what you'd pay to have a regular cardboard box full of anything from Amazon delivered to your door, but it’s still inexpensive enough that if your cat destroys it, it’s easy enough to throw in the recycle bin and get a new one.

Get it on Indiegogo.

Signalman Jack: The Baboon Who Worked for the Railroad—and Never Made a Mistake

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

One day in the 1880s, a peg-legged railway signalman named James Edwin Wide was visiting a buzzing South African market when he witnessed something surreal: A chacma baboon driving an oxcart. Impressed by the primate’s skills, Wide bought him, named him Jack, and made him his pet and personal assistant.

Wide needed the help. Years earlier, he had lost both his legs in a work accident, which made his half-mile commute to the train station extremely difficult for him. So the first thing he trained the primate to do was push him to and from work in a small trolley. Soon, Jack was also helping with household chores, sweeping floors and taking out the trash.

But the signal box is where Jack truly shined. As trains approached the rail switches at the Uitenhage train station, they’d toot their whistle a specific number of times to alert the signalman which tracks to change. By watching his owner, Jack picked up the pattern and started tugging on the levers himself.

Soon, Wide was able to kick back and relax as his furry helper did all of the work switching the rails. According to The Railway Signal, Wide “trained the baboon to such perfection that he was able to sit in his cabin stuffing birds, etc., while the animal, which was chained up outside, pulled all the levers and points.”

As the story goes, one day a posh train passenger staring out the window saw that a baboon, and not a human, was manning the gears and complained to railway authorities. Rather than fire Wide, the railway managers decided to resolve the complaint by testing the baboon’s abilities. They came away astounded.

“Jack knows the signal whistle as well as I do, also every one of the levers,” wrote railway superintendent George B. Howe, who visited the baboon sometime around 1890. “It was very touching to see his fondness for his master. As I drew near they were both sitting on the trolley. The baboon’s arms round his master’s neck, the other stroking Wide’s face.”

Jack was reportedly given an official employment number, and was paid 20 cents a day and half a bottle of beer weekly. Jack passed away in 1890, after developing tuberculosis. He worked the rails for nine years without ever making a mistake—evidence that perfectionism may be more than just a human condition.

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