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A Case Study of Coevolution:
The Scene: The Rocky Mountains
|Red Squirrels||Crossbilled Birds|
In most of the Rocky Mountains, red squirrels are an important predator of lodgepole pine seeds. They harvest pinecones from the trees and store them through the winter. However, the pine trees are not defenseless: squirrels have a difficult time with wide pinecones that weigh a lot but have fewer seeds. Crossbill birds live in these places and also eat pine seeds, but the squirrels get to the seeds first, so those birds donít get as many seeds.
However, in a few isolated places, there are no red squirrels, and crossbills are the most important seed predator for lodgepoles. Again, the trees are not defenseless: crossbills have more difficulty getting seeds from cones with large, thick scales. But the birds have a mode of counterattack: crossbills with deeper, shorter, less curved bills are better able to extract seeds from tough cones.
The stage is set, but the question remains: has coevolution happened? In order to show coevolution, we need evidence that suggests that the prey (the trees) have evolved in response to the predator (squirrels or birds) and that the predator has evolved in response to the prey. Craig Benkman, William Holiman, and Julie Smith1 set out to see if their observations would support the hypothesis of coevolution.