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Island Quirks

06 May

For a biologist, if you want to find something neat you should go to an island. It doesn’t even have to be a real island, any isolated ecosystem can bring out evolutionary quirks, but for physical isolation you can’t beat a good, old fashioned miles-out-at-sea, coconuts-and-palm-trees island. The island effect isn’t always the same, but for perfectly weird, it’s hard to beat an island. So, in honor of islands, a couple examples:

Firstly, I’d like to point to a recent article by The New York Times about blonde Solomon islanders. About one out of every ten of these islanders has bright blonde hair, which is normally only found in Europeans. No other islands have this trait. Its prevalence is likely due to what’s known as the founder effect. Isolated gene pools tend to magnify any mutations present in the original colonizing population.

The second effect I’d like to highlight comes in the form of giant bunny rabbits. Known as Nuralagus rex, these bunnies were at least six times larger than modern rabbits and lived three million years ago on the island of Minorca (located in the Mediterranean Sea). A giant bunny might seem freaky but islands tend to do weird things to the size of animals. Small creatures now free of predation tend to balloon up into dodo birds and giant rats. Large animals, on the other hand, are constricted by the lack of food and shrink. Dwarf elephants shrank down to less than six feet tall. This insular dwarfism even effected humans. A brief offshoot of our genetic family tree was Homo floresiensis, affectionally known as the hobbit. They stood no taller than about a meter (3′ 6″).

I could go on, but books have literally been written on the subject. For now, I’ll depart, but the next time you want to see some biological quirks for yourself, look for the nearest island.

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Posted by on May 6, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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