biology Biology is the natural science that studies life and living organisms, including their anatomy, physical structure, Biochemistry, chemical processes, Molecular biology, molecular interactions, Physiology, physiological mechanisms, Developmenta ...
, adaptation has three related meanings. Firstly, it is the dynamic evolutionary process that fits
organism In biology, an organism (from Ancient Greek, Greek: ὀργανισμός, ''organismos'') is any individual contiguous system that embodies the Life#Biology, properties of life. It is a synonym for "Outline of life forms, life form". Organ ...
s to their environment, enhancing their evolutionary fitness. Secondly, it is a state reached by the population during that process. Thirdly, it is a phenotypic trait or adaptive trait, with a functional role in each individual organism, that is maintained and has
through natural selection. Historically, adaptation has been described from the time of the ancient Greek philosophers such as Empedocles and
Aristotle Aristotle (; grc-gre, Ἀριστοτέλης ''Aristotélēs'', ; 384–322 BC) was a Greek philosopher and polymath during the Classical Greece, Classical period in Ancient Greece. Taught by Plato, he was the founder of the Lyceum (Cl ...

. In 18th and 19th century natural theology, adaptation was taken as evidence for the existence of a deity.
Charles Darwin Charles Robert Darwin (; 12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882) was an English naturalist Natural history is a domain of inquiry involving organisms, including animals, fungus, fungi, and plants, in their natural environment, leanin ...

Charles Darwin
proposed instead that it was explained by natural selection. Adaptation is related to biological fitness, which governs the rate of evolution as measured by change in gene frequencies. Often, two or more species co-adapt and co-evolve as they develop adaptations that interlock with those of the other species, such as with flowering plants and pollinating insects. In mimicry, species evolve to resemble other species; in Müllerian mimicry this is a mutually beneficial co-evolution as each of a group of strongly defended species (such as wasps able to sting) come to advertise their defences in the same way. Features evolved for one purpose may be Exaptation, co-opted for a different one, as when the insulating feathers of dinosaurs were co-opted for bird flight. Adaptation is a major topic in the philosophy of biology, as it concerns function and purpose (Teleology in biology, teleology). Some biologists try to avoid terms which imply purpose in adaptation, not least because it suggests a deity's intentions, but others note that adaptation is necessarily purposeful.


Adaptation is an observable fact of life accepted by philosophers and natural historians from ancient times, independently of their views on evolution, but their explanations differed. Empedocles did not believe that adaptation required a final cause (a purpose), but thought that it "came about naturally, since such things survived."
Aristotle Aristotle (; grc-gre, Ἀριστοτέλης ''Aristotélēs'', ; 384–322 BC) was a Greek philosopher and polymath during the Classical Greece, Classical period in Ancient Greece. Taught by Plato, he was the founder of the Lyceum (Cl ...

did believe in final causes, but assumed that Aristotle's biology#Scale of being, species were fixed. In natural theology, adaptation was interpreted as the work of a deity and as evidence for the existence of God. William Paley believed that organisms were perfectly adapted to the lives they led, an argument that shadowed Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who had argued that God had brought about "best of all possible worlds, the best of all possible worlds." Voltaire's satire Candide, Dr. Pangloss is a parody of this optimistic idea, and David Hume also argued against design. The ''Natural theology#The Bridgewater Treatises, Bridgewater Treatises'' are a product of natural theology, though some of the authors managed to present their work in a fairly neutral manner. The series was lampooned by Robert Knox, who held quasi-evolutionary views, as the ''Bilgewater Treatises''.
Charles Darwin Charles Robert Darwin (; 12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882) was an English naturalist Natural history is a domain of inquiry involving organisms, including animals, fungus, fungi, and plants, in their natural environment, leanin ...

Charles Darwin
broke with the tradition by emphasising the flaws and limitations which occurred in the animal and plant worlds. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck proposed a tendency for organisms to become more complex, moving up a ladder of progress, plus "the influence of circumstances," usually expressed as ''use and disuse''. This second, subsidiary element of his theory is what is now called Lamarckism, a proto-evolutionary hypothesis of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, intended to explain adaptations by natural means. Other natural historians, such as Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, Buffon, accepted adaptation, and some also accepted evolution, without voicing their opinions as to the mechanism. This illustrates the real merit of Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, and secondary figures such as Henry Walter Bates, for putting forward a mechanism whose significance had only been glimpsed previously. A century later, experimental field studies and breeding experiments by people such as E. B. Ford and Theodosius Dobzhansky produced Evidence of common descent, evidence that natural selection was not only the 'engine' behind adaptation, but was a much stronger force than had previously been thought.

General principles

What adaptation is

Adaptation is primarily a process rather than a physical form or part of a body. An internal parasite (such as a liver fluke) can illustrate the distinction: such a parasite may have a very simple bodily structure, but nevertheless the organism is highly adapted to its specific environment. From this we see that adaptation is not just a matter of visible traits: in such parasites critical adaptations take place in the biological life cycle, life cycle, which is often quite complex. However, as a practical term, "adaptation" often refers to a ''product'': those features of a species which result from the process. Many aspects of an animal or plant can be correctly called adaptations, though there are always some features whose function remains in doubt. By using the term ''adaptation'' for the evolutionary ''process'', and ''adaptive trait'' for the bodily part or function (the product), one may distinguish the two different senses of the word. Adaptation is one of the two main processes that explain the observed diversity of species, such as the different species of Darwin's finches. The other process is speciation, in which new species arise, typically through reproductive isolation. An example widely used today to study the interplay of adaptation and speciation is the evolution of cichlid fish in African lakes, where the question of reproductive isolation is complex. Adaptation is not always a simple matter where the ideal phenotype evolves for a given environment. An organism must be viable at all stages of its development and at all stages of its evolution. This places ''constraints'' on the evolution of development, behaviour, and structure of organisms. The main constraint, over which there has been much debate, is the requirement that each Genetics, genetic and phenotypic change during evolution should be relatively small, because developmental systems are so complex and interlinked. However, it is not clear what "relatively small" should mean, for example polyploidy in plants is a reasonably common large genetic change. The origin of eukaryote, eukaryotic endosymbiosis is a more dramatic example. All adaptations help organisms survive in their ecological niches. The adaptive traits may be structural, behavioural or Physiology, physiological. Structural adaptations are physical features of an organism, such as shape, body covering, armament, and comparative anatomy, internal organization. Ethology, Behavioural adaptations are inherited systems of behaviour, whether inherited in detail as instincts, or as a neuropsychology, neuropsychological capacity for learning. Examples include Foraging, searching for food, mating, and Animal communication, vocalizations. Physiological adaptations permit the organism to perform special functions such as making venom, secreting Snail slime, slime, and phototropism), but also involve more general functions such as developmental biology, growth and development, Thermoregulation, temperature regulation, ions, ionic balance and other aspects of homeostasis. Adaptation affects all aspects of the life of an organism. The following definitions are given by the evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky: :1. ''Adaptation'' is the evolutionary process whereby an organism becomes better able to live in its habitat or habitats. :2. ''Adaptedness'' is the state of being adapted: the degree to which an organism is able to live and reproduce in a given set of habitats. :3. An ''adaptive trait'' is an aspect of the developmental pattern of the organism which enables or enhances the probability of that organism surviving and reproducing.

What adaptation is not

Adaptation differs from flexibility, acclimatization, and learning, all of which are changes during life which are not inherited. Flexibility deals with the relative capacity of an organism to maintain itself in different habitats: its degree of Generalist and specialist species, specialization. Acclimatization describes automatic physiological adjustments during life; learning means improvement in behavioural performance during life. Flexibility stems from phenotypic plasticity, the ability of an organism with a given genotype (genetic type) to change its phenotype (observable characteristics) in response to changes in its habitat, or to move to a different habitat. The degree of flexibility is inherited, and varies between individuals. A highly specialized animal or plant lives only in a well-defined habitat, eats a specific type of food, and cannot survive if its needs are not met. Many herbivores are like this; extreme examples are koalas which depend on ''Eucalyptus'', and giant pandas which require bamboo. A generalist, on the other hand, eats a range of food, and can survive in many different conditions. Examples are humans, rats, crabs and many carnivores. The ''tendency'' to behave in a specialized or exploratory manner is inherited—it is an adaptation. Rather different is developmental flexibility: "An animal or plant is developmentally flexible if when it is raised in or transferred to new conditions, it changes in structure so that it is better fitted to survive in the new environment," writes evolutionary biology, evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith. If humans move to a higher altitude, respiration and physical exertion become a problem, but after spending time in high altitude conditions they acclimatize to the reduced partial pressure of oxygen, such as by producing more red blood cells. The ability to acclimatize is an adaptation, but the acclimatization itself is not. The reproductive rate declines, but deaths from some tropical diseases also go down. Over a longer period of time, some people are better able to reproduce at high altitudes than others. They contribute more heavily to later generations, and gradually by natural selection the whole population becomes adapted to the new conditions. This has demonstrably occurred, as the observed performance of long-term communities at higher altitude is significantly better than the performance of new arrivals, even when the new arrivals have had time to acclimatize.

Adaptedness and fitness

There is a relationship between adaptedness and the concept of fitness used in population genetics. Differences in fitness between genotypes predict the rate of evolution by natural selection. Natural selection changes the relative frequencies of alternative phenotypes, insofar as they are Heritability, heritable. However, a phenotype with high adaptedness may not have high fitness. Dobzhansky mentioned the example of the Sequoia sempervirens, Californian redwood, which is highly adapted, but a Relict (biology), relict species in danger of extinction. Elliott Sober commented that adaptation was a retrospective concept since it implied something about the history of a trait, whereas fitness predicts a trait's future. :1. Relative fitness. The average contribution to the next generation by a genotype or a class of genotypes, relative to the contributions of other genotypes in the population. This is also known as ''Darwinian fitness'', ''selection coefficient'', and other terms. :2. Absolute fitness. The absolute contribution to the next generation by a genotype or a class of genotypes. Also known as the Malthusian growth model, Malthusian parameter when applied to the population as a whole. :3. Adaptedness. The extent to which a phenotype fits its local ecological niche. Researchers can sometimes test this through a Transplant experiment, reciprocal transplant. Sewall Wright proposed that populations occupy ''adaptive peaks'' on a fitness landscape. To evolve to another, higher peak, a population would first have to pass through a valley of maladaptive intermediate stages, and might be "trapped" on a peak that is not optimally adapted.


Changes in habitat

Before Darwin, adaptation was seen as a fixed relationship between an organism and its habitat. It was not appreciated that as the climate changed, so did the habitat; and as the habitat changed, so did the Biota (ecology), biota. Also, habitats are subject to changes in their biota: for example, Invasive species, invasions of species from other areas. The relative numbers of species in a given habitat are always changing. Change is the rule, though much depends on the speed and degree of the change. When the habitat changes, three main things may happen to a resident population: habitat tracking, genetic change or extinction. In fact, all three things may occur in sequence. Of these three effects only genetic change brings about adaptation. When a habitat changes, the resident population typically moves to more suitable places; this is the typical response of flying insects or oceanic organisms, which have wide (though not unlimited) opportunity for movement. This common response is called ''habitat tracking''. It is one explanation put forward for the periods of apparent stasis in the Fossil#Fossil record, fossil record (the punctuated equilibrium theory).

Genetic change

Genetic change occurs in a population when natural selection and mutations act on its genetic variability. The first pathways of enzyme-based metabolism may have been parts of Purine metabolism, purine nucleotide metabolism, with previous metabolic pathways being part of the ancient RNA world. By this means, the population adapts genetically to its circumstances. Genetic changes may result in visible structures, or may adjust physiological activity in a way that suits the habitat. The varying shapes of the beaks of Darwin's finches, for example, are driven by differences in the ALX1 gene. Habitats and biota do frequently change. Therefore, it follows that the process of adaptation is never finally complete. Over time, it may happen that the environment changes little, and the species comes to fit its surroundings better and better. On the other hand, it may happen that changes in the environment occur relatively rapidly, and then the species becomes less and less well adapted. Seen like this, adaptation is a genetic ''tracking process'', which goes on all the time to some extent, but especially when the population cannot or does not move to another, less hostile area. Given enough genetic change, as well as specific demographic conditions, an adaptation may be enough to bring a population back from the brink of extinction in a process called evolutionary rescue. Adaptation does affect, to some extent, every species in a particular ecosystem. Leigh Van Valen thought that even in a stable environment, competing species constantly had to adapt to maintain their relative standing. This became known as the Red Queen hypothesis, as seen in host-parasite interaction. Existing genetic variation and mutation were the traditional sources of material on which natural selection could act. In addition, horizontal gene transfer is possible between organisms in different species, using mechanisms as varied as gene cassettes, plasmids, transposons and viruses such as bacteriophages.


In coevolution, where the existence of one species is tightly bound up with the life of another species, new or 'improved' adaptations which occur in one species are often followed by the appearance and spread of corresponding features in the other species. These co-adaptational relationships are intrinsically dynamic, and may continue on a trajectory for millions of years, as has occurred in the relationship between flowering plants and pollination, pollinating insects.


Bates' work on Amazonian Butterfly, butterflies led him to develop the first scientific account of mimicry, especially the kind of mimicry which bears his name: Batesian mimicry. This is the mimicry by a palatable species of an unpalatable or noxious species (the model), gaining a selective advantage as predators avoid the model and therefore also the mimic. Mimicry is thus an anti-predator adaptation. A common example seen in temperate gardens is the hoverfly, many of which—though bearing no sting—mimic the warning coloration of hymenoptera (wasps and bees). Such mimicry does not need to be perfect to improve the survival of the palatable species. Bates, Wallace and Fritz Müller believed that Batesian and Müllerian mimicry provided coloration evidence for natural selection, evidence for the action of natural selection, a view which is now standard amongst biologists.


All adaptations have a downside: horse legs are great for running on grass, but they can't scratch their backs; mammals' hair helps temperature, but offers a niche for Parasitism#Types, ectoparasites; the only flying penguins do is under water. Adaptations serving different functions may be mutually destructive. Compromise and makeshift occur widely, not perfection. Selection pressures pull in different directions, and the adaptation that results is some kind of compromise. Consider the antlers of the Irish elk, (often supposed to be far too large; in deer antler size has an Allometry, allometric relationship to body size). Obviously, antlers serve positively for defence against Predation, predators, and to score victories in the annual rut (mammalian reproduction), rut. But they are costly in terms of resource. Their size during the last glacial period presumably depended on the relative gain and loss of reproductive capacity in the population of elks during that time. As another example, camouflage to avoid detection is destroyed when vivid animal coloration, coloration is displayed at mating time. Here the risk to life is counterbalanced by the necessity for reproduction. Stream-dwelling salamanders, such as Caucasian salamander or Gold-striped salamander have very slender, long bodies, perfectly adapted to life at the banks of fast small rivers and mountain Stream, brooks. Elongated body protects their larvae from being washed out by current. However, elongated body increases risk of desiccation and decreases dispersal ability of the salamanders; it also negatively affects their fecundity. As a result, fire salamander, less perfectly adapted to the mountain brook habitats, is in general more successful, have a higher fecundity and broader geographic range. The Peafowl, peacock's ornamental train (grown anew in time for each mating season) is a famous adaptation. It must reduce his maneuverability and flight, and is hugely conspicuous; also, its growth costs food resources. Darwin's explanation of its advantage was in terms of sexual selection: "This depends on the advantage which certain individuals have over other individuals of the same sex and species, in exclusive relation to reproduction." The kind of sexual selection represented by the peacock is called 'mate choice,' with an implication that the process selects the more fit over the less fit, and so has survival value. The recognition of sexual selection was for a long time in abeyance, but has been rehabilitated. The conflict between the size of the human Fetus, foetal brain at birth, (which cannot be larger than about 400 cm3, else it will not get through the mother's pelvis) and the size needed for an adult brain (about 1400 cm3), means the brain of a newborn child is quite immature. The most vital things in human life (locomotion, speech) just have to wait while the brain grows and matures. That is the result of the birth compromise. Much of the problem comes from our upright Bipedalism, bipedal stance, without which our pelvis could be shaped more suitably for birth. Neanderthals had a similar problem. As another example, the long neck of a giraffe brings benefits but at a cost. The neck of a giraffe can be up to in length. The benefits are that it can be used for inter-species competition or for foraging on tall trees where shorter herbivores cannot reach. The cost is that a long neck is heavy and adds to the animal's body mass, requiring additional energy to build the neck and to carry its weight around.

Shifts in function


Pre-adaptation occurs when a population has characteristics which by chance are suited for a set of conditions not previously experienced. For example, the polyploid Spartina, cordgrass ''Spartina townsendii'' is better adapted than either of its parent species to their own habitat of saline marsh and mud-flats. Among domestic animals, the Leghorn chicken, White Leghorn chicken is markedly more resistant to Thiamine, vitamin B1 deficiency than other breeds; on a plentiful diet this makes no difference, but on a restricted diet this preadaptation could be decisive. Pre-adaptation may arise because a natural population carries a huge quantity of genetic variability. In Ploidy#Diploid, diploid eukaryotes, this is a consequence of the system of sexual reproduction, where mutant alleles get partially shielded, for example, by dominance (genetics), genetic dominance. Microorganisms, with their huge populations, also carry a great deal of genetic variability. The first experimental evidence of the pre-adaptive nature of genetic variants in microorganisms was provided by Salvador Luria and Max Delbrück who developed the Luria–Delbrück experiment, Fluctuation Test, a method to show the random fluctuation of pre-existing genetic changes that conferred resistance to bacteriophages in ''Escherichia coli''.

Co-option of existing traits: exaptation

Features that now appear as adaptations sometimes arose by co-option of existing traits, evolved for some other purpose. The classic example is the Evolution of mammalian auditory ossicles, ear ossicles of mammals, which we know from Paleontology, paleontological and Embryology, embryological evidence originated in the upper and lower jaws and the hyoid bone of their synapsid ancestors, and further back still were part of the Branchial arch, gill arches of early fish. The word ''exaptation'' was coined to cover these common evolutionary shifts in function. The flight feathers of birds evolved from the much earlier Feathered dinosaur#List of non-avian dinosaur species preserved with evidence of feathers, feathers of dinosaurs, which might have been used for insulation or for display.

Niche construction

Animals including earthworms, beavers and humans use some of their adaptations to modify their surroundings, so as to maximize their chances of surviving and reproducing. Beavers create dams and lodges, changing the ecosystems of the valleys around them. Earthworms, as Darwin noted, improve the topsoil in which they live by incorporating organic matter. Humans have constructed extensive civilizations with cities in environments as varied as the Arctic and hot deserts. In all three cases, the construction and maintenance of ecological niches helps drive the continued selection of the genes of these animals, in an environment that the animals have modified.

Non-adaptive traits

Some traits do not appear to be adaptive as they have a neutral or deleterious effect on fitness in the current environment. Because genes often have Pleiotropy, pleiotropic effects, not all traits may be functional: they may be what Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin called Spandrel (biology), spandrels, features brought about by neighbouring adaptations, on the analogy with the often highly decorated triangular areas between pairs of arches in architecture, which began as functionless features.Günter P. Wagner, Wagner, Günter P., ''Homology, Genes, and Evolutionary Innovation''. Princeton University Press. 2014. Chapter 1: The Intellectual Challenge of Morphological Evolution: A Case for Variational Structuralism. Page 7 Another possibility is that a trait may have been adaptive at some point in an organism's evolutionary history, but a change in habitats caused what used to be an adaptation to become unnecessary or even maladaptation, maladapted. Such adaptations are termed Vestigiality, vestigial. Many organisms have vestigial organs, which are the remnants of fully functional structures in their ancestors. As a result of changes in lifestyle the organs became redundant, and are either not functional or reduced in functionality. Since any structure represents some kind of cost to the general economy of the body, an advantage may accrue from their elimination once they are not functional. Examples: Wisdom tooth, wisdom teeth in humans; the loss of pigment and functional eyes in cave fauna; the loss of structure in Intestinal parasite, endoparasites.

Extinction and coextinction

If a population cannot move or change sufficiently to preserve its long-term viability, then obviously, it will become extinct, at least in that locale. The species may or may not survive in other locales. Species extinction occurs when the death rate over the entire species exceeds the birth rate for a long enough period for the species to disappear. It was an observation of Van Valen that groups of species tend to have a characteristic and fairly regular rate of extinction. Just as there is co-adaptation, there is also coextinction, the loss of a species due to the extinction of another with which it is coadapted, as with the extinction of a parasitism, parasitic insect following the loss of its host, or when a flowering plant loses its pollinator, or when a food chain is disrupted.

Philosophical issues

Adaptation raises Philosophy of biology, philosophical issues concerning how biologists speak of function and purpose, as this carries implications of evolutionary history – that a feature evolved by natural selection for a specific reason – and potentially of supernatural intervention – that features and organisms exist because of a deity's conscious intentions. Aristotle's biology, In his biology, Aristotle introduced teleology to describe the adaptedness of organisms, but without accepting the supernatural intention built into Plato's thinking, which Aristotle rejected. Modern biologists continue to face the same difficulty. On the one hand, adaptation is obviously purposeful: natural selection chooses what works and eliminates what does not. On the other hand, biologists by and large reject conscious purpose in evolution. The dilemma gave rise to a famous joke by the evolutionary biologist J. B. S. Haldane, Haldane: "Teleology is like a mistress to a biologist: he cannot live without her but he's unwilling to be seen with her in public.'" David Hull commented that Haldane's mistress "has become a lawfully wedded wife. Biologists no longer feel obligated to apologize for their use of teleological language; they flaunt it." Ernst Mayr stated that "adaptedness... is ''Empirical evidence, a posteriori'' result rather than an a priori goal-seeking", meaning that the question of whether something is an adaptation can only be determined after the event.Ernst Mayr, Mayr, Ernst W. (1992). "The idea of teleology" ''Journal of the History of Ideas'', 53, 117–135.

See also

* Adaptive evolution in the human genome * Adaptive memory * Adaptive mutation * Adaptive system * Anti-predator adaptation * Body reactivity * Ecological trap * Evolutionary pressure * Evolvability * Intragenomic conflict * Neutral theory of molecular evolution



* "Based on a conference held at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., May 20–24, 1990." * * * * * * * * * * "Papers by Dobzhansky and his collaborators, originally published 1937-1975 in various journals." * * * * * * * * * * * "Based on a conference held in Bellagio, Italy, June 25–30, 1989" * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * {{Authority control Evolutionary biology