Adaptive radiation
In evolutionary biology, adaptive radiation is the evolution
Evolution is any change across successive generations in the heritable characteristics of biological populations. Evolutionary processes give rise to diversity at every level of biological organisation, including species, individual organisms and molecules such as DNA and proteins.Life on Earth...

 of ecological
Ecology is the scientific study of the relations that living organisms have with respect to each other and their natural environment. Variables of interest to ecologists include the composition, distribution, amount , number, and changing states of organisms within and among ecosystems...

 and phenotypic diversity within a rapidly multiplying lineage
Lineage (evolution)
An evolutionary lineage is a sequence of species, that form a line of descent, each new species the direct result of speciation from an immediate ancestral species. Lineages are subsets of the evolutionary tree of life. Lineages are often determined by the techniques of molecular systematics.-...

. Starting with a recent single ancestor, this process results in the speciation
Speciation is the evolutionary process by which new biological species arise. The biologist Orator F. Cook seems to have been the first to coin the term 'speciation' for the splitting of lineages or 'cladogenesis,' as opposed to 'anagenesis' or 'phyletic evolution' occurring within lineages...

 and phenotypic adaptation of an array of species exhibiting different morphological and physiological traits with which they can exploit a range of divergent environments.
Adaptive radiation, a characteristic example of cladogenesis
Cladogenesis is an evolutionary splitting event in a species in which each branch and its smaller branches forms a "clade", an evolutionary mechanism and a process of adaptive evolution that leads to the development of a greater variety of sister species...

, can be graphically illustrated as a "bush", or clade
A clade is a group consisting of a species and all its descendants. In the terms of biological systematics, a clade is a single "branch" on the "tree of life". The idea that such a "natural group" of organisms should be grouped together and given a taxonomic name is central to biological...

, of coexisting species (on the tree of life).


Four features can be used to identify an adaptive radiation:
  1. A common ancestry of component species: specifically a recent ancestry. Note that this is not the same as a monophyly
    In common cladistic usage, a monophyletic group is a taxon which forms a clade, meaning that it contains all the descendants of the possibly hypothetical closest common ancestor of the members of the group. The term is synonymous with the uncommon term holophyly...

     in which all descendants of a common ancestor are included.
  2. A phenotype-environment correlation: a significant association between environments and the morphological and physiological traits used to exploit those environments.
  3. Trait utility: the performance or fitness advantages of trait values in their corresponding environments.
  4. Rapid speciation: presence of one or more bursts in the emergence of new species around the time that ecological and phenotypic divergence is underway.


The evolution of a novel feature may permit a clade to diversify by making new areas of morphospace accessible. A classic example is the evolution of a fourth cusp in the mammalian tooth. This trait permits a vast increase in the range of foodstuffs which can be fed on. Evolution of this character has thus increased the number of ecological niche
Ecological niche
In ecology, a niche is a term describing the relational position of a species or population in its ecosystem to each other; e.g. a dolphin could potentially be in another ecological niche from one that travels in a different pod if the members of these pods utilize significantly different food...

s available to mammals. The trait arose a number of times in different groups during the Cenozoic
The Cenozoic era is the current and most recent of the three Phanerozoic geological eras and covers the period from 65.5 mya to the present. The era began in the wake of the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous that saw the demise of the last non-avian dinosaurs and...

, and in each instance was immediately followed by an adaptive radiation. Birds find other ways to provide for each other, i.e. the evolution of flight opened new avenues for evolution to explore, initiating an adaptive radiation.
Other examples include placental gestation (for eutheria
Eutheria is a group of mammals consisting of placental mammals plus all extinct mammals that are more closely related to living placentals than to living marsupials . They are distinguished from noneutherians by various features of the feet, ankles, jaws and teeth...

n mammals), or bipedal locomotion (in hominins).


Adaptive radiations often occur as a result of an organism arising in an environment with unoccupied niches, such as a newly formed lake or isolated island chain. The colonizing population may diversify rapidly to take advantage of all possible niches.

In Lake Victoria
Lake Victoria
Lake Victoria is one of the African Great Lakes. The lake was named for Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, by John Hanning Speke, the first European to discover this lake....

, an isolated lake which formed recently in the African rift valley, over 300 species of cichlid
Cichlids are fishes from the family Cichlidae in the order Perciformes. Cichlids are members of a group known as the Labroidei along with the wrasses , damselfish , and surfperches . This family is both large and diverse. At least 1,300 species have been scientifically described, making it one of...

 fish adaptively radiated from one parent species in just 15,000 years.

Adaptive radiations commonly follow mass extinctions: following an extinction, many niches are left vacant. A classic example of this is the replacement of the non-avian dinosaurs with mammals at the end of the Cretaceous, and of brachiopod
Brachiopods are a phylum of marine animals that have hard "valves" on the upper and lower surfaces, unlike the left and right arrangement in bivalve molluscs. Brachiopod valves are hinged at the rear end, while the front can be opened for feeding or closed for protection...

s by bivalves at the Permo-Triassic boundary.

See also

  • Evolutionary radiation
    Evolutionary radiation
    An evolutionary radiation is an increase in taxonomic diversity or morphological disparity, due to adaptive change or the opening of ecospace. Radiations may affect one clade or many, and be rapid or gradual; where they are rapid, and driven by a single lineage's adaptation to their environment,...

    —a more general term to describe any radiation
  • Cambrian explosion
    Cambrian explosion
    The Cambrian explosion or Cambrian radiation was the relatively rapid appearance, around , of most major phyla, as demonstrated in the fossil record, accompanied by major diversification of other organisms, including animals, phytoplankton, and calcimicrobes...

    —the most famous evolutionary radiation
  • List of adaptive radiated Hawaiian honeycreepers by form
  • List of adaptive radiated marsupials by form

Further reading

  • Wilson, E. et al. Life on Earth, by Wilson, E.; Eisner, T.; Briggs, W.; Dickerson, R.; Metzenberg, R.; O'brien,R.; Susman, M.; Boggs, W.; (Sinauer Associates, Inc., Publishers, Stamford, Connecticut), c 1974. Chapters: The Multiplication of Species; Biogeography, pp 824–877. 40 Graphs, w species pictures, also Tables, Photos, etc. Includes Galápagos Islands
    Galápagos Islands
    The Galápagos Islands are an archipelago of volcanic islands distributed around the equator in the Pacific Ocean, west of continental Ecuador, of which they are a part.The Galápagos Islands and its surrounding waters form an Ecuadorian province, a national park, and a...

    , Hawaii
    Hawaii is the newest of the 50 U.S. states , and is the only U.S. state made up entirely of islands. It is the northernmost island group in Polynesia, occupying most of an archipelago in the central Pacific Ocean, southwest of the continental United States, southeast of Japan, and northeast of...

    , and Australia
    Australia (continent)
    Australia is the world's smallest continent, comprising the mainland of Australia and proximate islands including Tasmania, New Guinea, the Aru Islands and Raja Ampat Islands...

     subcontinent, (plus St. Helena Island, etc.).
  • Leakey, Richard
    Richard Leakey
    Richard Erskine Frere Leakey is a politician, paleoanthropologist and conservationist. He is second of the three sons of the archaeologists Louis Leakey and Mary Leakey, and is the younger brother of Colin Leakey...

    . The Origin of Humankind—on adaptive radiation in biology and human evolution, pp. 28–32, 1994, Orion Publishing.
  • Grant, P.R. 1999. The ecology and evolution of Darwin's Finches. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
  • Mayr, Ernst. 2001. What evolution is. Basic Books, New York, NY.
  • Kemp, A.C. 1978. A review of the hornbills: biology and radiation. The Living Bird 17: 105–136.
  • Gavrilets, S. and A. Vose. 2005. Dynamic patterns of adaptive radiation Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 102: 18040-18045.
  • Gavrilets, S. and A. Vose. 2009. Dynamic patterns of adaptive radiation: evolution of mating preferences. In Butlin, RK, J Bridle, and D Schluter (eds) Speciation and Patterns of Diversity, Cambridge University Press, pp. 102-126.
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