This year’s Crafoord Laureate in biosciences has demonstrated that Darwin’s theories about natural selection are true in practice. Using revolutionary studies of finches and sticklebacks, Dolph Schluter, University of British Columbia, Canada, has provided us with knowledge of how species arise.
It all started on the Galapagos Islands; under the supervision of Rosemary and Peter Grant, Dolph Schluter studied the same type of finches that had interested Charles Darwin in the 1830s. Originally, this interest focused on a species of finch that had migrated from South America. Once the birds had adapted to the islands’ various habitats, they diversified into more than a dozen different species, due to a process called adaptive radiation.
The main differences between the finches were their beaks. Surprisingly, Dolph Schluter also found that two species that lived on the same island sometimes displayed greater variation in beak size and shape than between the same two species living on different islands. Beak size and shape played a decisive role in the types of seeds the birds ate, so individuals that no longer needed to compete for the same food source had greater chances of surviving and breeding.
Ecological speciation is the name given to the evolution of species through natural selection, rather than by accumulation of chance mutations. Dolph Schluter asked whether this process could be repeated in other species in similar circumstances. To find the answer, he decided to look more closely at a small fish, the stickleback, which lives in the ocean, but also migrates up to freshwater lakes in British Columbia, Canada, among other places.
And yes, the same thing happened over and over again in several different lake systems. The sticklebacks adapted to the freshwater environment and acquired different traits to those they had in a marine environment. Gradually, differences arose between the sticklebacks in the same lake, with some living at the bottom while others explored the free water mass. After generations of adaptation to their different habitats, their differences were so great that the two types no longer mated.
“Dolph Schluter’s studies allowed him to prove that, in the right conditions, Darwin’s well-founded thoughts about speciation really do occur in nature. He is undoubtedly one of the greatest authorities on ecology’s role in how species arise and diversify,” says Kerstin Johannesson, professor of Marine Ecology and member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Dolph Schluter continued introducing marine sticklebacks to freshwater ponds, so that he and his colleagues could, in real time and in detail, track the genetic changes in the fish. Natural selection means that the fish with traits that are important for their survival are more likely to reproduce.
As this year’s Crafoord Laureate in biosciences, Dolph Schluter receives six million Swedish kronor and will join the select group of outstanding researchers whose work has been rewarded.
“It feels extraordinary to receive this award and be among such company”, he says in a comment.
“for fundamental contributions to the understanding of adaptive radiation and ecological speciation”
About the laureate:
Dolph Schluter was born in Montreal, Canada, in 1955. He received his Ph.D. in 1983 from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. He is now University Killam Professor in the Zoology Department and Biodiversity Research Centre at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.
About the Crafoord Prize
The Crafoord Prize is one of the major international science prizes and is awarded in partnership between the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Crafoord Foundation in Lund. The disciplines are selected to complement the Nobel Prize; they alternate every year, between mathematics and astronomy, geosciences, biosciences and polyarthritis. The Academy is responsible for deciding the laureates. This year’s laureate in biosciences is awarded six million Swedish kronor. The prize will be presented by the king Carl XVI Gustaf during Crafoord Days the 8, 10 and 11 May in Lund and Stockholm.
Ove Eriksson, Professor of Plant Ecology, Stockholm University
Chair of the Prize Committee
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Kerstin Johannesson, Professor of Marine Ecology, University of Gothenburg
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