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The Red Queen Hypothesis

In the second chapter of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Alice encounters the Red Queen who personifies the archetypal chess piece. The Queen wishes to show Alice the chessboard which Alice realizes covers the entire world. The Red Queen says to Alice, “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

The concept of needing to run as fast as you can just to stay in the same place has led to the evolutionary principle known as the Red Queen Hypothesis. In short, organisms need to evolve, not to gain advantage for the long term but to stay alive in the short term. Thus, at any given time, the cross-section of genetic diversity for a species represents their best effort for the current landscape at hand. What is an advantage today may be a disadvantage tomorrow.

Podcast: Free Audio File

If you prefer to listen to podcasts, feel free to play the audio version of this blog by clicking on the player above.

Podcast: Evolution by Subtraction
Length: 5 min 26 seconds
Written and read by the author

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Evolved Loss

Generally speaking, advances in ability and cognitive function help in “keeping up with the evolutionary Joneses.” We witness these advances across many species until a mass extinction event knocks everyone back a few steps. When this happens, things like forebrain development recommences and competing species work once again to outthink each other.

With everyone running faster, better, stronger, quicker, some species discover that de-evolving or regressing in ability provides an edge. To conserve resources, sea sponges ruled brains irrelevant and did away with them. No brain – no worrying if you made the wrong decision either. Fleas have also chosen “Evolved Loss” since their dinosaur-feeding days. Once winged and able to see with compound eyes, ancient flea ancestors resembled insects that today we would call scorpion flies.

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Scorpion Flies - yes, they are real!

Scorpion Flies - yes, there is such a thing, and no, they are neither harbingers of the apocalypse nor are they even harmful to us. In dinosaur times though, these ancient flea/scorpion flies did bite and ingest blood. Most scorpion flies of today lead vegetarian lives and the rest eat other insects. So, if one lands on you, the scorpion fly just wishes to say hello. Despite their gruesome name, scorpion flies are often our friends.

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The Age of Mammals

Time passes, mass extinctions occur, and new host animals arise. With the Age of Mammals, came the Age of Little Things that Like to Feed Off Mammals. Feasting off low-to-the-ground, furry creatures promoted a different skill set. Needing to squeeze through hairs without tipping off the host, it became advantageous to have lateral compression of the body, that is, to look like a cartoon character smashed upside a brick wall. You are very, very thin. No longer feasting upon giants, becoming the second-best insect jumper in the world replaced wings. Once you plan to live on a dog for the rest of your life, wings just get in the way. For the record, the froghopper beats flea jumping by a factor of four with accelerations upward of 400 G’s. Some argue that the crown title should lie beneath the sea with planktonic copepods whose muscles generate forces ten times stronger than any other animal ever studied.

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Cat Flea - most common flea on the dog and cat

Once fleas reach the adult stage, their sole focus is to jump from the tallest point on the ground and land on one suitable host. For the cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis), once the reproduction cycle starts about twenty-four hours after landing on their goal, fleas avoid all light and plan to never leave their food source, ever. Expending resources for compound eyes then becomes irrelevant and costly, and a single photoreceptor on either side fits the bill.

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Could humans be forcing Evolved Loss for species survival?

While Evolved Loss doesn’t sound sexy, it has served many species off and on for eons. In the current climate of global-human domination, Evolved Loss might be a greater and greater strength. For millions of years a higher brain-to-body-mass ratio, a crude measure of intelligence usually favors survival. However, Eric Abelson, a research wildlife biologist of the U.S. Forest Service, stated that "Modern mammals with large relative brain sizes are more likely to be endangered rather than less” referring to recent studies. For me, hearing about extinction risks of my fellow mammals reaffirms that while ignorance is bliss, knowledge and correct action can ultimately save our planet.

References and Further Reading

  1. Davies, E. (2016, August 26). Earth - The greatest jumper on Earth is probably not a flea. Retrieved June 14, 2018, from http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160825-the-greatest-jumper-on-earth-is-probably-not-a-flea
  2. Dryden, DVM, MS, PhD, Dipl ACVM (Parasitology), M. W., Herrin, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVM (Parasitology), B., Reif, MPH, PhD, K. E., Smith, RVT, V., & Ritchie, D. (2018, June). An Evidenced Based Small Animal Clinical Parasitology Training Course. Lecture presented at Wildcat Parasitology 2018 in College of Veterinary Medicine, Kansas State University, Manhattan.
  3. Engel, M. S. (2015). Insect evolution. Current Biology, 25(19). doi:10.1016/j.cub.2015.07.059
  4. Hirth, F. (2010). On the Origin and Evolution of the Tripartite Brain. Brain, Behavior and Evolution, 76(1), 3-10. doi:10.1159/000320218 https://www.karger.com/Article/FullText/320218
  5. Hamilton, J. (2003, August 01). Spittle Bug Named Highest Insect Jumper. Retrieved June 14, 2018, from https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1382734
  6. Hogenboom, M. (2015, April 27). Earth - Why would an animal lose its brain? Retrieved June 14, 2018, from http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150424-animals-that-lost-their-brains
  7. Poinar, G.O. (2012). Palaeontology: The 165-Million-Year Itch. Current Biology, 22, R278-R280. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2012.03.014
  8. Viegas, J. (2016, February 17). Big-Brained Mammals at Greatest Risk of Extinction. Retrieved June 14, 2018, from https://www.livescience.com/53747-big-brained-mammals-at-greatest-risk-of-extinction.html

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