Industrial Melanism And Crypsis

Perhaps the first analysis of crypsis and the evolution of a color pattern from the perspective of changes in camouflage involved industrial melanism in the salt-and-pepper moth, Biston betularia. Industrial melanism refers to an association of high frequencies of dark, melanic forms or phenotypes of a species with high levels of air pollution. The fundamental components of this classic example of the evolution of an adaptive trait also apply to numerous other species of moth and other insects that have evolved melanism as a response to environments influenced by air pollution. These components are: (1) the environment was changed by air pollution in such a way that the camouflage of the "typical" or wild type of color pattern was impaired, (2) a mutant phenotype occurred in this new environment that had a functional design or color pattern that improved survival from birds hunting the moths at rest, and (3) the dominant allele at the gene that specified this favored mutant phenotype then increased in frequency under the influence of natural selection, leading to the species exhibiting industrial melanism.

In the salt-and-pepper moth, we know from museum collections that prior to the middle of the 19th century in northern England the moths had pale-colored wings with a speckling of dark dots (the typical form). Also, up until that time in the early industrial revolution the bark of trees was predominantly pale and covered in epiphytic lichens and algae. The salt-and-pepper moth rests on bark, and females lay their eggs under foliose lichens or in cracks in the bark. The moths are active at night and rely on background matching and crypsis for survival from birds during daylight hours. Survival enables males to mate at night and females to lay their eggs over a number of nights. The gaseous (e.g., sulfur dioxide) and particulate (soot) air pollution produced by industry both killed the epiphytic communities on the trees and blackened the resting surfaces of the moths. The typical, pale-colored moths became more conspicuous. The fully black, melanic form known as carbonaria was not collected until 1848, near Manchester. It may have occurred shortly before through a mutation (producing a new allele of the gene), or perhaps it had already existed for some time in that region as a rare allele. Whatever its precise origin, the carbonaria form rose rapidly in frequency and spread extensively through the industrial regions of Great Britain over the following decades; the adult moth as well as newly emerged larvae can move long distances. Clear geographical associations were established between the amount of air pollution and the frequency of the fully melanic carbonaria and also of several intermediate melanic forms known as insularia.

Up until the mid-20th century this remained a verbal, albeit persuasive, reasoning for the evolution of melanism as an adaptive response to a changed environment. It was only then that some classic early experiments in evolutionary biology began to add scientific rigor to this explanation. Several researchers performed a series of experiments that showed beyond doubt that, whereas the survival of the pale typical form was higher in rural, unpolluted regions of Great Britain than that of the carbonaria form, this relationship is reversed in the polluted industrial environments. Although there have been discussions about the precise details of some of these types of experiments, the fundamental finding of a switch in survival and relative fitnesses (reproductive success) of the pale and dark phenotypes across the extreme environments, principally the result of corresponding changes in crypsis, has been corroborated. Other differences in fitness among the phenotypes that are not directly related to the visual differences in color pattern may also be involved in determining the precise dynamics of the evolution.

There has, however, more recently been an additional finding that proves beyond any doubt the role of evolution by natural selection. Great Britain and other countries in northern Europe have over the past few decades reduced levels of air pollution from soot and gases such as sulfur dioxide. This has in turn led to declines in the frequencies of the melanic forms and the coining of the phrase "evolution in reverse." As the resting environment returns, at least in a qualitative sense, back toward the original, unpolluted state, the relative fitnesses are also reversed, leading to present-day declines in melanism. Although it has not been precisely quantified, the conclusion must be that in previously polluted regions, while the fully black melanic (carbonaria) has again become conspicuous and vulnerable to birds, the paler typicals have become well camouflaged on the changed background.

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