An evolutionary radiation is an increase in taxonomic diversity or morphological disparity, due to adaptive change or the opening of ecospace.[1] Radiations may affect one clade or many, and be rapid or gradual; where they are rapid, and driven by a single lineage's adaptation to their environment, they are termed adaptive radiations.[2]

Examples of evolutionary radiationEdit

Perhaps the most familiar example of an evolutionary radiation is that of placental mammals immediately after the extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous, about 65 million years ago. At that time, the placental mammals were mostly small, insect-eating animals similar in size and shape to modern shrews. By the Eocene (58-37 million years ago), they had evolved into such diverse forms as bats, whales, and horses. [3]

Other familiar radiations include the Cambrian explosion, the radiation of land plants after their colonisation of land, the Cretaceous radiation of angiosperms, and the diversification of insects, a radiation that has continued almost unabated since the Devonian, 400 Mya.[4]

Types of radiationEdit

Radiations may be discordant, with either diversity or disparity increasing almost independently of the other, or concordant, where both increase at a similar rate.[1]

Evolutionary radiation in the fossil recordEdit

Much of the work carried out by palaeontologists studying evolutionary radiations has been using marine invertebrate fossils simply because these tend to be much more numerous and easy to collect in quantity than large land vertebrates such as mammals or dinosaurs. Brachiopods, for example, underwent major bursts of evolutionary radiation in the Early Cambrian, Early Ordovician, to a lesser degree throughout the Silurian and Devonian, and then again during the Carboniferous. During these periods, different species of brachiopods independently assumed a similar morphology, and presumably mode of life, to species that had lived millions of years before. This phenomenon, known as homeomorphy is explained by convergent evolution: when subjected to similar selective pressures, organisms will often evolve similar adaptations. [5]. Further examples of rapid evolutionary radiation can be observed among ammonites, which suffered a series of extinctions from which they repeatedly re-diversified; and trilobites which, during the Cambrian, rapidly evolved into a variety of forms occupying many of the niches exploited by crustaceans today [6], [7], [8]

Recent evolutionary radiationsEdit

A number of groups have undergone evolutionary radiation in relatively recent times. The cichlids in particular have been much studied by biologists. In places such as Lake Malawi they have evolved into a very wide variety of forms, including species that are filter feeders, snail eaters, brood parasites, algal grazers, and fish-eaters. [9] Grasses have been another success, evolving in parallel with grazing herbivores such as horses and antelope [1].


  1. ^ a b doi:10.1666/0094-8373(2005)031<0035:TMDOCI>2.0.CO;2
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  2. ^ Schluter, D. (2000). The Ecology of Adaptive Radiation. Oxford University Press. 
  3. ^ This topic is covered in a very accessible manner in Chapter 11 of Richard Fortey's Life: An Unauthorised Biography (1997)
  4. ^ The radiation only suffered one hiccup, when the Permo-Triassic extinction event wiped out many species.
  5. ^ Living and Fossil Brachiopods by M. J. S. Rudwick (1970)
  6. ^ Aquagenesis, The Origins and Evolution of Life in the Sea by Richard Ellis (2001)
  7. ^ Ammonites by Neale Monks & Philip Palmer (2002)
  8. ^ Trilobite, Eyewitness to Evolution by Richard Fortey (2000)
  9. ^ The Cichlid Fishes: Nature's Grand Experiment in Evolution by George Barlow (2002)

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