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Biological warfare and the coevolutionary arms race
by the Understanding Evolution team

Local legend has it that during the 1950s, three hunters were found dead at their campsite in Oregon. Nothing was stolen, and there was no evidence of foul play. Investigators scoured the scene, but found nothing more unusual than a newt boiled in the hunters' coffee pot — probably scooped from the stream along with their water. What caused the death of these hunters? Edmund Brodie Jr. (a.k.a. "Butch"), a biologist at The Oregon College of Education, wanted to find out.

Dr. Edmund D. Brodie, Jr. AKA Butch newt
Dr. Edmund D. Brodie, Jr. a.k.a. Butch (left), and a newt (right). A newt is a type of salamander. Newts tend to spend more time on dry land and have coarser, drier skin than salamanders do.

Here, you will follow Butch's investigation of the hunters' deaths and learn how newts became entangled in a form of "evolutionary warfare" with their predators. You'll explore how the weapons in this war evolved, how practical limitations constrain each sides' arsenals, and what happens to those who end up caught in the crossfire of this ten-thousand year old battle.



In this case study we will explore these key questions:
  • What is coevolution?

  • How do living and non-living environments shape organisms through natural selection?

  • How do evolutionary trade-offs restrict adaptation?

  • How can we use the methods of science to answer questions about the natural world?



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Pretty but deadly


Dr. Brodie's photo provided by Dr. Brodie; Newt photo by Dr. Robert Thomas and Margaret Orr © California Academy of Sciences

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