What is Disruptive Selection?


Disruptive selection, also known as diversifying selection or bimodal selection, is a type of natural selection that favors extreme phenotypes over intermediate phenotypes. This process leads to the splitting of a population into two or more distinct groups, with each group specializing in a different trait or adaptation.

Factors Influencing Disruptive Selection

Several factors can contribute to the occurrence of disruptive selection:

1. Environmental Heterogeneity

Disruptive selection is more likely to occur in environments with diverse and contrasting conditions. For example, in a population of birds living in an area with varying food sources, those with longer beaks may be favored for accessing deep flowers, while those with shorter beaks may be favored for feeding on shallow flowers.

2. Frequency-Dependent Selection

Frequency-dependent selection occurs when the fitness of a phenotype depends on its frequency in the population. In disruptive selection, this can result in a cyclical pattern where the fitness of extreme phenotypes increases as their frequency decreases, and vice versa. This dynamic can maintain the polymorphism of traits in a population.

3. Sexual Selection

Sexual selection, particularly in species where mate choice plays a significant role, can contribute to disruptive selection. For instance, in a population of birds, females may prefer males with either extremely bright or extremely dull plumage, leading to the divergence of male phenotypes.

Mechanisms of Disruptive Selection

There are several mechanisms through which disruptive selection can act:

1. Predation Pressure

In the presence of predators, disruptive selection can favor individuals with extreme phenotypes that are better suited to escape predation. For example, in a population of lizards, those with either very large or very small body sizes may have a survival advantage over individuals with intermediate body sizes.

2. Resource Partitioning

Disruptive selection can occur when different phenotypes specialize in utilizing different resources or niches within an ecosystem. This allows for reduced competition and increased fitness for individuals with extreme phenotypes. An example of this is the divergence of beak sizes in Darwin’s finches, where different beak sizes enable them to exploit different food sources.

3. Hybridization and Reinforcement

Hybridization between two populations with different traits can result in disruptive selection if hybrids have lower fitness compared to the parental populations. This can lead to reinforcement of reproductive isolation between the populations, further driving the divergence of phenotypes.

Examples of Disruptive Selection in Nature

Disruptive selection has been observed in various species across different ecosystems:

1. African Cichlid Fish

In several lakes in East Africa, disruptive selection has led to the formation of multiple distinct species of cichlid fish. Different fish species specialize in feeding on different food sources, such as algae or invertebrates, and occupy different ecological niches within the lakes.

2. Peppered Moths

During the industrial revolution in England, the prevalence of dark-colored peppered moths increased due to disruptive selection. The soot-covered industrial environment favored darker moths, which were better camouflaged, while lighter-colored moths were more easily spotted and preyed upon by birds.

3. Darwin’s Finches

The finches on the Galápagos Islands, studied by Charles Darwin, exhibit disruptive selection in their beak sizes. Different beak sizes enable the finches to exploit different food sources, such as seeds or insects, leading to the formation of distinct beak morphologies in different populations.

FAQs about Disruptive Selection

1. What is the difference between disruptive selection and stabilizing selection?

Disruptive selection favors extreme phenotypes and leads to the divergence of a population into distinct groups, while stabilizing selection favors intermediate phenotypes and reduces variation within a population.

2. Can disruptive selection lead to the formation of new species?

Yes, disruptive selection can contribute to speciation. When two populations become reproductively isolated due to divergent selection pressures, they may evolve into separate species over time.

3. Are there any disadvantages to disruptive selection?

While disruptive selection can lead to the evolution of specialized traits, it may also result in reduced fitness for individuals with intermediate phenotypes, as they may be less adapted to either extreme of the selection pressure.

4. Can disruptive selection occur in asexual organisms?

Disruptive selection primarily acts on sexually reproducing organisms, where genetic recombination and variation allow for the divergence of phenotypes. However, disruptive-like phenomena can also occur in asexual organisms through mechanisms such as clonal interference.

5. How does disruptive selection contribute to biodiversity?

Disruptive selection promotes the diversification of traits within a population, which can lead to the formation of new species and the overall increase in biodiversity within an ecosystem.

6. Can disruptive selection occur in human populations?

While disruptive selection is primarily associated with natural selection in non-human populations, it can also occur in human populations under certain circumstances. For example, in the case of antibiotic resistance, the use of antibiotics can select for both highly susceptible and highly resistant bacterial strains, leading to the coexistence of extreme phenotypes.

7. Is disruptive selection the same as directional selection?

No, disruptive selection and directional selection are two different modes of natural selection. Directional selection favors individuals at one extreme of the phenotypic range, resulting in a shift of the population mean towards that extreme, while disruptive selection favors individuals at both extremes, leading to the formation of multiple phenotypic clusters.

8. Can disruptive selection reverse over time?

Disruptive selection can reverse over time if the selection pressures change or if gene flow between different phenotypic clusters increases. This can lead to the merging of previously distinct groups and a decrease in phenotypic variation.

9. How does disruptive selection relate to adaptive radiation?

Disruptive selection is often associated with adaptive radiation, which is the rapid diversification of species from a common ancestor into different ecological niches. Disruptive selection can drive the divergence of phenotypes within a population, providing the basis for adaptive radiation to occur.

10. Can disruptive selection occur in the absence of genetic variation?

Disruptive selection relies on genetic variation within a population to act upon. In the absence of genetic variation, disruptive selection would not be able to lead to the divergence of phenotypes.

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