Using fitness landscapes to visualize evolution in action

BEACONites Bjørn Østman and Randy Olson created a video to visualize evolution in action using fitness landscapes. Read about it below!

Fitness landscapes were invented by Sewall Wright in 1932. They map fitness, or reproductive success, of individual organisms as a function of genotype or phenotype. Organisms with higher fitness have a higher chance of reproducing, and populations therefore tend to evolve towards higher ground in the fitness landscape. Even though only two traits can be visualized this way, we can actually observe evolution in action. Here we explore three phenomena in evolutionary dynamics that can be difficult to comprehend.

First we show dynamic landscapes with two fluctuating peaks in which the population track the peaks as they appear at difference locations in phenotype space. We also demonstrate negative density-dependent selection, which causes the population to split into distinct subpopulations located on separate peaks, illustrating how speciation can occur in sympatry. Lastly, we show the survival of the flattest where the population prefers a tall narrow peak at low mutation rate, but moves to the lower but wider plateau at high mutation rate. These examples highlight how visualizing evolution on fitness landscapes fosters an intuitive understanding of how populations evolve.

About Danielle Whittaker

Danielle J. Whittaker, Ph.D. Managing Director of BEACON
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