Musings on Survival

I have a great job because I get to explore nature. Sometimes it is in the remotest places, but more often it is inside of the walls of this museum — in our labs, in our research collections, and in exhibits like Survival of the Slowest.

I walk through this exhibit and find it exciting because it makes us ask questions. For students, scientists — and anyone at any age who is a lifelong learner — being curious and asking questions is what it is all about!

Questions can be thinking to yourself, or verbalized with your family, friends, a teacher, or an Academy staff member. This may sound odd coming from a scientist, but finding answers is not as important as asking questions.

Lulu, the two-toed sloth, hangs in a favorite pose in Survival of the Slowest.

Clearly, Survival of the Slowest is about evolution, the process that allows life to adapt and survive within the ever-changing ecosystems on earth. One of the processes that drives evolutionary change is survival of the fittest, also called natural selection.

Put simply, organisms that have characteristics that give them a higher potential to survive in a particular ecosystem will leave more offspring, and thus the characteristics of those “fitter” organisms will become more common through time.

What makes one individual more fit than another? What makes one species more fit than another?

Discovering Dinosaurs

We tend to look at anatomical features for adaptations that effect evolutionary fitness — specializations of teeth, limbs, coloration — and think about what advantage a particular adaptation gives to a species. But don’t forget that behaviors can also be adaptations.

How can we judge if an adaptation provides advantages? We must be careful not to bring our own biases on what we think makes an organism “better.”

Are sharp teeth, speed, and size the key to survival? Sometimes yes, but more often no. It is fitness within changing ecosystems that ultimately determines success or failure in an evolutionary sense.

I spy another animal in Survival of the Slowest

This exhibit, including the fascinating animals on display, will inspire people to think about how animals fit into their ecosystem. How do these animals “make a living?” A tortoise, a spider, a sloth? They each have different ways, and it isn’t always easy to understand their “strategy.”

And consider this: What makes our species, Homo sapiens, fit?  How do we make a living (in an ecological sense)? Has that changed through the time that our species has existed? Are we adapting to a changing world? Is our behavior an adaptation?

I think that curiosity and asking questions may be among our key adaptations that help us survive. That is part of what we are as a species, and it contributes to our fitness in an evolutionary sense.

By Ted Daeschler, PhD, is Academy associate curator of Vertebrate Zoology and professor in the Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science of Drexel University.

Photos by Ramon Torres

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