Quite what we should expect from an environment correspondent trying to do actual science I’m not sure but we could hope for better than this at least:
Foxgloves brought to the Americas 200 years ago have evolved to be bigger to allow pollination by hummingbirds, researchers have found, as a new study concludes flowers can rapidly change shape to adapt to their environment.
No, this is entirely the wrong way around. Evolution isn’t something that is done – by plant or animal – it’s something that happens to a life form. The whole subject just doesn’t make sense if we don;t get this the right way around.
Scientists compared the size of foxglove flowers brought to Colombia and Costa Rica with those found in their native environment of southern England and concluded that the cone-shaped flowers were up to a quarter larger in the south and central American countries.
In the UK they are typically pollinated by bees but in both American countries this role is carried out by hummingbirds, which are better at pollinating longer flowers, said the study published in the British Ecological Society’s Journal of Ecology.
So is that. But this is that wrong way around:
Thought to have escaped from the gardens of English engineers, who brought them from home in the 19th century, the flowers have adapted to their new surroundings in just 85 generations, an unusually rapid evolution.
The flowers – the plants – haven’t done anything. They’ve certainly not adapted. Further, they’ve not changed in order to do anything.
Here’s how it does work. In any generation or reproduction there is variation. Flowers, randomly because of mutation, more directly because of differences in food stocks perhaps, will be of different sizes spread across that new generation.
As is also true of near every generation of everything only some will go on to reproduce the next generation. Which, or who, depends on all sorts of things, near random factors – who got eaten by a llama perhaps, and who didn’t – and rather less random things like the absence of bees and the presence of hummingbirds in the new location.
In the entire absence of bees and the only method of pollination being the hummingbirds it will be the larger flowers that get pollinated. So, to the extent that larger flowers are genetically determined – and not by that presence or absence of a nice bit of food of phosphorous or summat – the next generation will have larger flowers.
Not because the flowers have adapted. Not because they have evolved. But because the small flowered foxgloves are all dead and dead childless, while the long flowered ones are admiring their grandchildren from the heavenly clouds.
The same thing in reverse would happen if we took normally hummingbird pollinated flowers and grew them in England where only bees would do that job. Flower sizes would shrink over the generations.
Plants and animals do not adapt, they do not evolve in order to do something. Evolution is something that happens to them. That survival of the fittest thing is the environment surrounding selecting among those who best fit that environment. By acting upon the normal random variation in the population, plus any newly arisen mutations, to promote, or hinder, certain types or variations breeding successfully or not.
To talk of “plants evolving to” is to make the Watchmaker mistake. Don’t do it.