Evolutionary Arms Race

red queen by Pauline Semon


An evolutionary arms race is a struggle between competing sets of co-evolving genes that develop adaptations and counter-adaptations against each other, resembling an arms race, which are also examples of positive feedback (the effects of a small disturbance on a system include an increase in the magnitude of the disturbance). The co-evolving gene sets may be in different species, as in an evolutionary arms race between a predator species and its prey, or a parasite and its host.

Alternatively, the arms race may be between members of the same species, as in the manipulation/sales resistance model of communication or as in runaway evolution or Red Queen effects. One example of an evolutionary arms race is in sexual conflict between the sexes. Thierry Lodé emphasized the role of such antagonist interactions in evolution leading to character displacements and antagonist coevolution. The Escalation hypothesis put forward by Geerat Vermeij speaks of more general conflicts and was originally based on his work with marine gastropod fossils.

Co-evolution itself is not necessarily an arms race. For example, mutualism may drive co-operative adaptations in a pair of species. This is the case with certain flowers’ ultra-violet color patterns, whose function is to guide bees to the center of the flower and promote pollination. Co-evolution is also interspecific by definition; it excludes intraspecific (within species) arms races such as sexual conflict. Evolutionary arms races can even be displayed between humans and micro-organisms, where medical researchers make antibiotics, and micro-organisms evolve into new strains which are more resistant.

Arms races may be classified as either symmetrical or asymmetrical. In a symmetrical arms race, selection pressure acts on participants in the same direction. An example of this is trees growing taller as a result of competition for light, where the selective advantage for either species is increased height. An asymmetrical arms race involves contrasting selection pressures, such as the case of cheetahs and gazelles, where cheetahs evolve to be better at hunting and killing while gazelles evolve not to hunt and kill, but rather to evade capture.

When a species has not been subject to an arms race previously, it may be at a severe disadvantage and face extinction well before it could ever hope to adapt to a new predator, competitor, etc. This should not seem surprising, as one species may have been in evolutionary struggles for millions of years while the other might never have faced such pressures. This is a common problem in isolated ecosystems such as Australia or the Hawaiian Islands. In Australia, many invasive species, such as cane toads and rabbits, have spread rapidly due to a lack of competition or natural predators and a lack of adaptations to cane toads on the part of its prey. Introduced species are a major reason why some indigenous species become endangered or even extinct, as was the case with the dodo.

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