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Virtual Simulation: Natural Selection

You will be working in groups of two to three to complete this activity.

Part A​: This simulation represents 500,000 years. A bird population exists in the south-western
portion of the island. During this time, mutations may alter the ability of some birds and their
descendents to thrive in the environment. Birds with traits that enhance their fitness are more
likely to survive and reproduce.

In the southwest, your birds will encounter the environmental conditions listed in the table
below. Fill in the second column of the chart with the bird phenotypes that are best suited for
each of the conditions.

Environmental condition Bird phenotype best suited

Seeds Short & straight beak

Edible insects Long & straight beak

Nectar Long & curved beak

Light green foliage Closest match to foliage is best to avoid


Predators Larger size is best suited to avoid predators

1. Of the phenotypes you selected for the three birds, how fit do you think each phenotype
is in the current environment? Explain your reasoning.
The two birds that are green will have a better time hiding away from predators because
they match the color of the foliage. The bird that is yellow doesn’t match the foliage color so it
will not be able to blend in well. Additionally, the two green birds are rather large, so they can
defend themselves against the predators. The yellow bird is medium sized, so it will have a bit
of a hard time having to defend itself against predators

As far as food, the yellow bird, which has a short and straight beak will be able to eat seeds.
The two green birds, which have longer beaks, will not be able to fare so well. These birds will
likely be more suited for either eating edible insects or nectar.
2. Work with your group to assign each student one of the populations of birds to observe.
(If you are in a group of two, one bird will not be observed) Record the population you
have been assigned.
My bird was assigned a population of 300 birds initially. My bird is the second bird.

3. Watch the animation. Record in the chart for your assigned population what changes
occur (including mutations, mutation effects, and population numbers) in each
population, and how many years have passed when the change occurs.

Years Passed Mutation # Mutation Effects Population Number

50,000 none none none

100,000 none none none

150,000 none none none

200,000 none none none

250,000 none none none

300,000 1 Plumage is light 932

brown, which made
offspring more
susceptible to

350,000 none none none

400,000 none none none

450,000 none none none

500,000 none none none

4. In your group, discuss how the bird populations changed over the course of the 500,000
years. Write a summary of your discussion. For example, what types of mutations
occurred? Under what circumstances were the offspring more or less fit as a result of
the mutation?
Bird 1: beak first got longer, then beak got shorter. This did not help the fitness of birds
with this phenotype which made them go extinct.
Bird 2: plumage changed to light brown which made offspring more susceptible to
disease. Regardless, the population of birds with this phenotype still continued to increase
Bird 3: bird first got less curved, then more curved, and then longer. This helped the
fitness of birds with this phenotype, which allowed them to increase in population.
5. Were your ideas about the fitness of each phenotype you selected correct? Explain why
or why not.
I was only partially correct. While the birds with phenotype 1 had characteristics that
would make them appear to survive better (green plumage, longer/curved beak, large
size), it was not enough to make them survive in the long term. However, the bird with
phenotype 2, which had characteristics that you would think make them survive less,
actually allowed them to fare better than the other bird types.

6. Compare how your bird populations changed with the bird populations of another group
of students. Record the similarities and differences you notice.
Both our groups had one bird species die and had our populations exceed 1000. They
had two small birds that were successful with different colors, while ours were relatively the
same size (one bird being green and the other yellow). They also had a bird with a short beak,
like our yellow bird.

Part B​: A hurricane has hit the island, and some of the birds have been blown to three new
areas! Each area has a unique environment. Work with your group to assign each of you to
observe one of the three areas.

7. Record in the chart below the environment that exists in each of the three new areas
when each bird population arrives.Highlight in the first column the name of the area that
you have been assigned.

Area Description of environment

Northeast Seeds: some

Insects: some
Nectar: some
Predators: none
Foliage: orange-brown

Northwest Seeds: some

Insects: none
Nectar: some
Predators: none
Foliage: yellow
Southeast Seeds: some
Insects: none
Nectar: none
Predators: some
Foliage: light green

8. Discuss with your group which birds you think will be most fit in each new environment
and which will be less fit. Record in the space below your ideas, and explain your
Northeast: bird 2 because it has a short beak, which allows it to eat more seeds. It also
has yellow feathers, which allows it to blend into the environment better:
Northwest: bird 1 & 2 because they have shorter beaks and they are yellow which allows
them to eat more seeds and blend in better.
Southeast: bird 3 because it is green and allows it to blend in

9. Watch the animation for your assigned area. Record in the chart below the phenotypes
of the birds in each population and any changes that occur, such as mutations or
environmental changes (food, foliage, predators) during 500,000 years of evolution.

Bird 1 Bird 2 Bird 3

Years Population # Mutation or Population # Mutation or Population # Mutation or

passed 216 Environmental 216 Environmental 364 Environmental
Change Change Change

550,000 416 none 416 none 564 Plumage is light


600,000 548 none 548 none 696 Beak is more


650,000 680 Predators are 680 Predators are 795 Plumage is light
now in the now in the green
environment environment
Predators are
now in the

700,000 602 none 602 Plumage is light 654 none


750,000 567 Insects are no 567 Insects are no 569 Insects are no
longer available longer available longer available
800,000 417 none 417 none 389 Body size is

850,000 296 none 296 Beak is less 249 none


900,000 212 Seeds are no 212 Seeds are no 148 Seeds are no
longer available longer available longer available

Predators are Predators are Predators are

many many many

950,000 0 none 0 none 0 none

1,000,000 0 none 0 none 0 none

10. With your group, discuss the changes that occurred in each of the three areas over
500,000 years.
In each of the 3 areas, there were changes in food source availability (such as the seeds
and insects going out of supply) and predators entering environments that previously had none.

11. Explain how much the recent birds vary from the original birds after 1 million years of
natural selection. How does evolution explain the changes? Use all of the following
terms or phrases in your explanation: natural selection, random mutation, non-random
selection of favorable traits, reproduction, genetic variation, and extinction.
The recent birds changed significantly after 1 million years of natural selection. Initially,
there wasn’t a lot of genetic variation, two of the three populations were green with longer beaks
while one was yellow with a shorter beak. However, with a couple of random mutations in
plumage and beak shape, it seemed to increase the variation across the populations. Some
mutations,however, were selected favorably given environmental conditions. Specifically, with
the third bird population changing from green to brown, this allowed it to blend in with the
orange-brown colored foliage. And through natural selection, this species was favored, and
allowed to reproduce more than than the other two species. This wasn’t to last, though. Due to
loss of food sources such as seeds, insects, and nectar and the increase in predators, there
was no way any of the species could fare. As a result, all three populations rapidly decreased in
population until they reached extinction.

12. In this activity you worked with a model to simulate natural selection. In what ways did
this activity model natural selection well? What aspects of natural selection did the
simulation not include?
This activity modeled natural selection well in that reflected the variation of bird
phenotypes and how those traits interacted with their environment. This was especially seen
through the simulation’s option to customize birds to test how they would fare in a given
environment. Additionally, the simulation demonstrating how the mutations allowed for certain
species to survive better than others accurately reflected the competition aspect of natural

The aspect of natural selection that the simulation did not include was showing how ‘fit’ a bird
phenotype actually was. Sure, it could be assumed that since the population increases, that the
bird automatically is more ‘fit’. But exactly what traits contribute to that fitness was unclear at