This is a super fun speciation activity that has really helped my students understand the roles of random mutation and geographic isolation. The set up is simple and low prep. It gives students a hands-on experience that they will remember!
High school biology teachers are often tasked with helping students understand simple concepts that, unfortunately, are gobbed down by big, unfamiliar vocabulary. For example: Geographic isolation and evolution leads to speciation due to random mutation and differential natural selection. Whew! That is a mouthful of biology vocabulary if there ever was one!
I love this speciation activity so much because it makes the process and vocabulary real to students. It is not hard to put together, but if you want the activity made and ready to use (with how-to video, powerpoint slides to guide students, student sheets, and answer key) – get the whole speciation activity here!
Evolution and Speciation Activity:
Here is our goal again: students will understand that Geographic isolation and evolution leads to speciation due to random mutation and differential natural selection. Every part of the activity takes one bite out of this word sandwich!
Students are put into groups. Each group is clustered around one desk, which represents a separate island. Groups enjoy naming their islands.
Introduce the students to a simple creature – I like to draw a circle body with one eye and two oval legs – very simple! A large population of this creature lives on the mainland. There is a very bad storm. A group of the creatures are swept to sea. A few wash up onto the different islands.
The creatures begin reproducing in their new island homes! To represent this, each student in the group will draw the creature on their own small piece of paper (roughly 4’’ x 4’’ pieces work well). However, these little guys are prone to genetic mutations! Have each student add or change one characteristic on their creature. I provide a list of possibilities to get them rolling – longer legs, arms, horns, another eye, fur, claws, a new color, fangs, a tail, wings, anything! Emphasize that mutations are random!
Differential natural selection:
Each island has different environmental pressures (food sources, habitat, predators, temperatures, etc). I make up three different environmental pressures unique to each island, print them on small individual strips of paper, fold them up and number them 1-3. Students start with number 1, with someone in the group reading it outloud. One island may experience a heat wave that destroys all low lying vegetation. Another island may have predatory snakes that eat our creatures. A third island may find the only food they can eat are underground tubers. Whatever the situation, groups must look at the mutated creatures they have drawn and decide which mutation would be selected for in their environment. Which mutation offers the greatest advantage! Students LOVE this part of the process – arguing for one mutation or another. The one with the most beneficial mutation survives, the others die off.
Now the next round of reproduction begins. The surviving creature passes its favorable mutation on to its offspring. Students grab a new sheet of paper, draw their island’s creature with its selected mutation (the offspring of the survivor) – and then each individual chooses another mutation to add! They open the second slip of paper that offers a new environmental change, and then debate which creature from this generation has a mutation that is most advantageous. This process happens one more time for a total of three rounds – three environmental changes, selecting three random mutations.
This is an excellent time to point out that the MUTATION CAME FIRST! Organisms do not evolve by choice to fit their environment.
Mutations do not happen in response to an environmental change. Rather, a population contains natural variation, some variations may be better suited for an environment than other variations.
At the end of the third round, each island has seen the evolution of their creature. I have them place the three survivors (one from each generation) onto a strip of paper that represents the timeline of evolution. They then present the evolutionary timeline to the class, reading their environmental changes, and explaining why a particular mutation allowed the creature to out-compete the others and pass on their mutation.
As students present their creatures, I draw them on the board, adding all of the mutations. After everyone is presented, we discuss the differences between the creatures on each island. Are they now different species? Would they breed with each other if they were brought back together into one population? Each group names their own new species of creature!
While not explicitly part of the activity, this is a perfect way to discuss extinction. I love to ask groups if there was ever a time when none of their creatures really had a mutation that would help in their new environment. What would happen to a population if the environment changed and there were no variations that could survive? The population would go extinct!
We hang up our evolution timelines in the classroom. They are super fun to look at and the students love showing off their drawings. They are also a great illustration later when we discuss transitional fossils!
Evolution and Speciation Activity Ready to Use!
Get the whole speciation activity complete and ready to use! This resource comes with:
- A full video explanation of the activity explaining how to set up and teach through the activity to get the most out of it
- Google Slideshow- 19 slides to use with your class which provides examples of speciation in real life, explains key vocabulary, and guides you through the activity.
- The activity sheet with three unique environmental changes for each of six different islands. Ready to print and use!
- Three page student sheet for students to take notes and answer questions about what they learned.
- A full answer key!
Set up time – 10 minutes.