Understanding Evolution

Genotype versus phenotype

An organism's genotype is the set of genes that it carries. An organism's phenotype is all of its observable characteristics — which are influenced both by its genotype and by the environment. So in defining evolution, we are really concerned with changes in the genotypes that make up a population from generation to generation. However, since an organism's genotype generally affects its phenotype, the phenotypes that make up the population are also likely to change.

For example, differences in the genotypes can produce different phenotypes. In these house cats, the genes for ear form are different, causing one of these cats to have normal ears and the other to have curled ears.

Cat with straight ears Cat with curled ears

A change in the environment also can affect the phenotype. Although we often think of flamingos as being pink, pinkness is not encoded into their genotype. The food they eat makes their phenotype white or pink.

Pink flamingoWhite flamingo


View this article online at:

Cat with curled ears image by Renate Wald, courtesy of American Curl Rescue Project; White flamingo image courtesy of Silvio Sommazzi; Pink flamingo image courtesy of Dr. Lloyd Glenn Ingles, © California Academy of Sciences

Understanding Evolution © 2021 by The University of California Museum of Paleontology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California