Monday, July 28, 2008

Appeasement as an Evolutionary Strategy

Cornell research is shedding light on milkweed evolution, which I'm sure you're dying to know more about.

Milkweed is eaten by caterpillars. It evolved defense mechanisms to keep them at bay, and the caterpillars in turn evolved counter-defense attributes. Milkweed plants adopted three strategies, growing hairs and producing latex and poison, but different caterpillars have become successful at using different mechanisms to get past each defense. This study shows that instead of further evolving any one of the three defenses, milkweed plants are now reducing their efforts in those areas, and have compensated by increasing the speed at which they repair themselves.

I'm not sure that this is the best way to go. In the economics of evolution, increased food supply leads to increased demand. Populations explode once the restrictions of starvation are removed, so unless the milkweed continues to speed up its self-repair process, it will soon find itself facing too many caterpillars to keep up with. Still, evolution moves slowly, so we'll see how it ends up.

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The header image is adapted from a photo taken by Bill McChesney and used under a creative commons license.
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