Monday, February 10, 2014

Natural selection of winter Olympians

How does natural selection occur over time?  And how does that relate to the Winter Olympics?  Ahh, great questions.

Here's a fun video by Asap Science to help. It explains some of the changes in body types by winter Olympians over the past 90 years that have come to be the norm because they improve athletes' fitness in terms of their sporting success. These changes in athletes give great insight about evolution in nature, where the forms we now see in plants and animals seem logically helpful for their respective "sports" - their survival and reproduction, i.e. their biological fitness.

While an averaged-sized body was originally thought to be most beneficial for Olympic success, nowadays, athletes' bodies have changed to specialize to specific sports. Have a look:




OK, back to nature: let's compare to some birds. Think about the body types of:
  • hummingbirds, which have longer-than-average bills, some straight, some curved, and tiny lightweight bodies to best reach flower nectar
  • sparrows and finches, which have strong, stocky and sometimes pointy bills to pick out and crush seeds, and relatively short legs for easy access to the ground to pick up 
  • storks, which have long legs to wade in water, long bills to spear fish, frogs or worms, and strong wings to ride the air currents in search of good fishing grounds

the tiny purple-throated mountain gem, a hummingbird
evening grosbeak, a North American finch
photo: D. Gordon E. Robertson, Wikimedia
the leggy yellow-billed stork
in Botswana, Africa

The list goes on -- what's your favorite bird?  An ostrich? Designed for foot speed on the open African plains - the sprinting champion.

even the kids are fast - mom, dad, and the young ostriches


An eagle? Its great vision and strong feet and claws help it find, capture, and carry wily, moving prey - it's the weightlifter.

A flamingo? That crazy curved bill and its upside down feeding posture, combined with super long legs, allow it to win the deep-water crustacean feeding competition (note: not a Sochi 2014 event).

the flamingos' feeding style looks bizarre, but it works for filtering out the small critters they eat
(yes, eating a ton of red, carotonoid-laden crustaceans might turn you pink too)


A vulture? I know, probably not, but s/he rocks at the uncommon bird sport of scavenging, with a bald head that's easy to keep clean and strong wings to fly far and wide to locate newly-dead animals.

I think you get the point -- while there may be several ways to win at survival, certain body shapes or features often do it best for a given ecological niche.

It's the same for the athletes – a champion figure skater and a champion speed skater would be unlikely to win each other's competitions!

Happy Olympics!

2 comments:

  1. Funny video i see. It explains some of the changes in body types by winter Olympians over the past 90 years that have come to be the norm because they improve athletes' fitness in terms of their sporting success

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  2. Thanks, John, athletes have definitely improved! Do you play or have a favorite winter sport?

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