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Fossil Record of Stickleback Evolution

A quarry site in Nevada carries the evolutionary history of a population of stickleback fish that resided there when it was a freshwater lake. In a short time span in evolutionary terms—about 10,000 years—the fish population can be seen to dramatically reduce the size of their pelvic spines. This particular fossil record is remarkably complete with nearly year-by-year detail which includes documentation of intermediate forms.

Fossil Record of Stickleback Evolution Background

By studying the fossils from different layers of the fossilized lakebed, one can follow the evolution of the local stickleback population over tens of thousands of years, since each layer corresponds to a specific year.

Sticklebacks from this quarry can be divided into three categories.

1) Complete pelvis: those with a complete pelvis and pelvic spines,
2) Intermediate pelvis: those with the pelvis reduced to two smaller bones and no pelvic spines,
3) Reduced pelvis: those with the pelvis reduced to one small bone and no pelvic spines.

The graph in the animation shows that initially, the lake was populated with sticklebacks with reduced pelvis. Reduced pelvis sticklebacks are not unusual in fresh-water lakes. About 10,000 years into the graph, the population changes rapidly to a stickleback form with a complete pelvis with spines. This was probably an "invasion" of the lake by the complete pelvis sticklebacks, perhaps due to the lake being temporarily joined to another habitat in which complete pelvis sticklebacks were abundant. However, after the initial invasion occurs, the reduced pelvis form re-evolves. This re-evolution happens relatively quickly--over the course of around 10,000 years--and is accompanied by the presence of sticklebacks with an intermediate form of pelvis.

From Lecture Three of the 2005 Holiday Lectures Series "Evolution: Constant Change and Common Threads"

Fossil Record of Stickleback Evolution Teaching Tips

The animations in this section have a wide variety of classroom applications. Use the tips below to get started. Please tell us how you are using the animations in your classroom by sending e-mail to biointeractive@hhmi.org.

  1. Use the animations to make abstract scientific ideas visible and concrete.
  2. Explain important scientific principles through the animations. For example, the biological clocks animations can be used to demonstrate the fundamentals of transcription and translation.
  3. Make sure that students learn the material by repeating sections of the animations as often as you think necessary to reinforce underlying scientific principles. You can start, restart, and play back sections of the animations.
  4. Urge students to use the animations in accordance with their own learning styles. Students who are more visually oriented can watch the animations first and read the text later, while others might prefer to read the explanations first and then view the graphics.
  5. Incorporate the animations into Web-based learning modules that you create to supplement your classroom curricula.
  6. Encourage students to incorporate the animations into their own Web-based projects.


The 2005 Holiday Lectures Series "Evolution: Constant Change and Common Threads"

Fossil Record of Stickleback Evolution Overview Credits

Director: Dennis Liu, Ph.D.

Scientific Direction: David M. Kingsley, Ph. D.

Scientific Content: Satoshi Amagai, Ph.D.

Animator: Blake Porch

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