Examples of Disruptive Selection: Unleashing the Power of Evolutionary Divergence

Evolution is a fascinating process that shapes the diversity of life on Earth. One of the driving forces behind evolution is natural selection, which acts on the variation within a population. Disruptive selection, also known as diversifying selection, is a type of natural selection that favors extreme phenotypes over intermediate ones. In this article, we will explore several examples of disruptive selection in different species and understand how it contributes to the divergence of traits and the formation of new species.

What is Disruptive Selection?

Disruptive selection is a type of natural selection that occurs when extreme phenotypes have a higher fitness compared to individuals with intermediate phenotypes. This process leads to the divergence of traits within a population, as extreme phenotypes become more common while intermediate phenotypes decrease in frequency. Disruptive selection can occur in response to environmental factors or due to sexual selection, where certain traits are preferred by mates.

Example 1: African Finches

A classic example of disruptive selection can be observed in African finches, specifically the black-bellied seedcracker (Pyrenestes ostrinus). These finches have two distinct beak sizes: large-beaked individuals and small-beaked individuals. The large-beaked finches are able to crack open large, tough seeds, while the small-beaked finches are better suited for consuming small, soft seeds. Intermediate beak sizes are less efficient at cracking both types of seeds. This leads to disruptive selection, as the extreme beak sizes have a higher fitness advantage over the intermediate beak sizes.

Example 2: Snail Shell Coloration

In certain populations of the snail species Cepaea nemoralis, disruptive selection has been observed in relation to shell coloration. The snails have two distinct color morphs: a light-colored morph and a dark-colored morph. The light-colored morph is better camouflaged in areas with light-colored vegetation, while the dark-colored morph is more concealed in areas with dark-colored vegetation. Intermediate coloration provides less camouflage in both types of environments. As a result, disruptive selection favors the extreme color morphs, leading to the divergence of shell coloration within the population.

Example 3: Beak Size in Darwin’s Finches

Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos Islands provide another compelling example of disruptive selection. These finches have different beak sizes and shapes, which are adapted to different food sources. For instance, the large ground finch (Geospiza magnirostris) has a large, robust beak that is well-suited for cracking hard seeds, while the small tree finch (Camarhynchus parvulus) has a slender beak that is better for probing flowers and insects. Intermediate beak sizes are less efficient at exploiting either food source, leading to disruptive selection and the maintenance of distinct beak sizes and shapes among different finch species.

Example 4: Butterfly Wing Patterns

Disruptive selection can also be observed in butterfly populations, particularly in relation to wing patterns. The Heliconius butterflies, found in Central and South America, exhibit a range of wing patterns that serve as a defense mechanism against predators. In certain regions, the butterflies with bright, contrasting wing patterns are more visible to predators, while those with dull, cryptic patterns are better camouflaged. Intermediate wing patterns provide less protection in both scenarios. Disruptive selection acts on the extreme wing patterns, leading to the divergence of wing patterns within the population.

Example 5: Flower Color in Monkeyflowers

Monkeyflowers (Mimulus) provide an interesting example of disruptive selection in relation to flower color. In some populations, there are two distinct flower color morphs: red and yellow. The red morphs are more attractive to hummingbirds, which serve as their primary pollinators, while the yellow morphs are preferred by bees. Intermediate flower colors are less effective at attracting either pollinator. Disruptive selection favors the extreme flower colors, leading to the maintenance of distinct color morphs within the population.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Q1: How does disruptive selection contribute to the formation of new species?

A1: Disruptive selection can lead to the divergence of traits within a population, eventually resulting in the formation of new species. As extreme phenotypes become more common and intermediate phenotypes decrease, reproductive isolation can occur, preventing gene flow between the two groups. Over time, this can lead to the accumulation of genetic differences and the emergence of distinct species.

Q2: Can disruptive selection occur in human populations?

A2: Disruptive selection is primarily observed in natural populations, where environmental factors and mate choice play significant roles. While human populations can experience selection pressures, the impact of disruptive selection is less pronounced due to culturalfactors and the ability to adapt through technology and social structures.

Q3: Are there any negative consequences of disruptive selection?

A3: Disruptive selection can have both positive and negative consequences. On one hand, it can lead to the formation of new species and the adaptation of populations to specific environments. On the other hand, it can also contribute to the extinction of intermediate phenotypes, reducing the overall genetic diversity within a population.

Q4: Can disruptive selection occur simultaneously with other types of selection?

A4: Yes, disruptive selection can occur simultaneously with other types of selection, such as stabilizing selection and directional selection. In certain scenarios, different selection pressures may act on different traits within a population, leading to a complex interplay of selection forces.

Q5: How is disruptive selection related to speciation?

A5: Disruptive selection plays a crucial role in the process of speciation. As extreme phenotypes become more common and intermediate phenotypes decrease, reproductive isolation can occur, leading to the formation of new species. Disruptive selection acts as a driving force behind the divergence of traits and the development of reproductive barriers between populations.


Disruptive selection is a powerful force in shaping the diversity of life on Earth. Through the examples discussed in this article, we have seen how disruptive selection can lead to the divergence of traits within populations, the formation of new species, and the adaptation to specific environments. By favoring extreme phenotypes over intermediate ones, disruptive selection unleashes the power of evolutionary divergence. Understanding the mechanisms and consequences of disruptive selection provides valuable insights into the intricate processes of evolution and the remarkable variety of life that surrounds us.

Remember, the world of evolution is a complex and ever-changing one. Disruptive selection is just one piece of the puzzle, but it plays a significant role in the grand tapestry of life’s diversity. So, keep exploring, keep questioning, and keep marveling at the wonders of nature’s evolutionary masterpiece.

1. Grant, P. R., & Grant, B. R. (2002). Unpredictable evolution in a 30-year study of Darwin’s finches. Science, 296(5568), 707-711.
2. Servedio, M. R., & Noor, M. A. (2003). The role of reinforcement in speciation: theory and data. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, 34(1), 339-364.
3. Naisbit, R. E., Jiggins, C. D., & Mallet, J. (2003). Disruptive sexual selection against hybrids contributes to speciation between Heliconius cydno and Heliconius melpomene. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences, 270(1531), 225-230.

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