Research and Course
Topic Examples



A Teaching Evolution Resource Kit was produced for the Evolution Workshop 2006, and is available here as pdf.  It includes many, but not all, of the resources listed below in a downloadable format.

      We welcome additions and corrections to this page. E-mail changes and new material to Lena Struwe (


See separate web page for Evolution Teaching Resources.



Examples from scientific research:

Recent and classic breakthrough discoveries

that can be highlighted when teaching evolution

(arranged alphabetically by main topic)


Agrodiaetus Butterflies [Rapid Speciation, Reinforcement]

These butterflies are generally morphologically uniform, but males have major differences in their color patterns on their wings and they have variable chromosome numbers. This study shows that breeding between species will lead to unfit hybrids (reinforcement), thereby keeping species apart. Color differences occur mainly between closely related species that live in the same area.

WWW: Science, Evolution: Breakthrough of the Year, 2005.

Article: V. A. Lukhtanov, ”Reinforcement of Pre-Zygotic Isolation and Karyotype Evolution in Agrodiaetus Butterflies”, Nature 436: 385 (2005); Nature, Editor’s Summary,


Ancient DNA

Article: E. Willerslev, & A. Cooper, “Ancient DNA”, Proc Biol Sci 272:3-16 (2005).


Bird flu and influenza evolution

The 1918 flu epidemic killed 20-50 million people worldwide, and in 2005 DNA sequenced from exhumed victims showed that this virus started as a pure avian strain, only occurring in birds.  Studies showed how the virus had evolved with only a few mutations to infect humans as well. This increases the concern over the current bird flu threat.

WWW: Science, Evolution: Breakthrough of the Year, 2005.

Article: T.M. Tumpey et al., ”Characterization of the Reconstructed 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic Virus”, Science 310: 77 (2005).

Article: J. Kaiser, “Resurrected Influenza Virus Yields Secrets of Deadly 1918 Pandemic”, Science 310: 28 (2005).

Article: M. Enserink, ”Pandemic Influenza: Global Update” Science 309: 370 (2005).

Article: D. Normile, ”Genetic Analyses Suggest Bird Flu Virus Is Evolving” Science 308: 1234 (2005).


Chromosome evolution

Article: A. Coghlan, “Chromosome evolution in eukaryotes: a multi-kingdom perspective”, Trends Genet. 21: 673-682 (2005).

Article: Z. Cheng et al., “A genome-wide comparison of recent chimpanzee and human segmental duplication”, Nature 437: 88-93 (2005).


Cichlid fishes [Rapid Speciation in Vertebrates]

Article: Kocher, T.D., “Adaptive evolution and explosive speciation: The cichlid fish model”, Nature Reviews Genetics 5: 288-298 (2004).

Article: Kocher, T.D., “Evolutionary biology, Ghost of speciation past”, Nature 435: 29-30 (2005).


Co-evolution between different species

Article: C. A. Machado et al., “The coevolutionary history of the fig-fig wasp mutualism: new insights from neotropical species”, Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A (2005).


Concrete evidence for common ancestry

Allowing students to view scientific evidence for macroevolution can help promote critical thinking skills and will provide insight into the inferential processes used by scientists. 

WWW:  Theobald, D., “The scientific case for common descent”, The Talk.Origins Archive, January 2006.


Ecology, evolution, and biogeography interaction

An excellent review paper arguing for closer interaction between these fields were published by Wiens & Donoghue (2004). The current distribution of species is dependent both on ecological limitations and past evolutionary events. A model is presented that can explain why the tropics have more species based on phylogenetic studies, not necessarily ecological factors.

Article: Wiens, J. J. & M. J. Donoghue, “Historical biogeography, ecology, and species richness”, Trends in Ecology and Evolution 19: 639-644 (2004).


Efficacy of selection

Resources on microevolution can help students understand natural selection during real-time scales.

Article: Genetica: volume 112-113. The entire volume is dedicated to microevolution, available online.

Article: Hendry, A.P. & M.T. Kinnison, “An introduction to microevolution: rate, pattern, process”, Genetica 112-113: 1-8, Nov 2001.


European black caps (warbler birds) [sympatric speciation = within-the-same area speciation, temporal segregation]

Two different populations in the same area differ in their migration routes and arrival times to breeding grounds in Germany and Austria, resulting in separation into two, geographically overlapping populations that later might lead to two different species.

WWW: Science, Evolution: Breakthrough of the Year, 2005.

Article: S. Bearhop et al., ”Assortative Mating as a Mechanism for Rapid Evolution of a Migratory Divide” Science 310: 502 (2005)


European corn borers (insects) [sympatric speciation = within-the-same area speciation]

Within the same field, two races of a species of corn borer is dividing into two different populations based on their food plant, one eats corn and the other mugwort and hops. The different races emit different pheromones so they nearly  only mate (95%) within their own race.

WWW: Science, Evolution: Breakthrough of the Year, 2005.

Article: T. Malausa et al., ”Assortative Mating in Sympatric Host Races of the European Corn Borer” Science 308: 258 (2005)


EVO-DEVO: birds

Article: A. Abzhanov et al. . “Bmp4 and morphological variation of beaks in Darwin's finches”, Science 305:1462-1465 (2004).


EVO-DEVO: insect wings

Article: S. D. Weatherbee et al., “Ultrabithorax function in butterfly wings and the evolution of insect wing patterns”, Curr Biol. 9:109-115 (1999).


Flower development and evolution – MADS-box genes

One of the most important gene families for flower development are the MADS-box genes, and several studies have highlighted how gene duplication and function has changed over millions of years during the evolution of higher plants. This accounts for important differences in morphology that are linked to other processes such as pollination and speciation.

Article: S. Kim et al., “Phylogeny and diversification of B-function MADS-box genes in angiosperms: evolutionary and functional implications of a 260-million-year-old duplication”, American Journal of Botany 91: 2101-2118 (2004).


Fruit type evolution of potatoes and tomatoes in Solanaceae

By looking at the evolutionary relationships within the large tomato/tobacco plant family Solanaceae, which also includes eggplant, peppers, and potatoes, S. Knapp showed that berries had arisen several times independently.

Article: S. Knapp, “Tobacco to tomatoes: a phylogenetic perspective on fruit diversity in the Solanaceae”, J. Exper. Botany 53: 2001-2022 (2002).


Gene-transfer in parasitic plants

The parasite plant Rafflesia has acquired its mitochondrial genome from its host-plant through horizontal gene transfer. It is also the plant the the largest flowers in the world.

Article: C. Davis & K. J. Wurdack, “Host-to-Parasite Gene Transfer in Flowering Plants: Phylogenetic Evidence from Malpighiales”, Science 305: 676-678 (2004).


Geology, extinctions, and evolution

Article: A. K. Behrensmeyer, “Atmosphere. Climate change and human evolution”, Science 311: 476-478 (2006).

Article: P. G. Falkowski et al., “The rise of oxygen over the past 205 million years and the evolution of large placental mammals”, Science 309: 2202-2204 (2005).

Article: G. H. Miller et al., “Ecosystem collapse in Pleistocene Australia and a human role in megafaunal extinction”, Science 309:287-290 (2005)


Hawaiian crickets [Rapid Speciation]

Species of Hawaiian crickets are only separated by different male courtship songs.  These insects show the highest speciation rate for arthropods, with similar rates to African cichlids (fishes).

WWW: Science, Evolution: Breakthrough of the Year, 2005.

Article: T.C. Mendelson & K.L. Shaw, ”Sexual Behaviour: Rapid Speciation in an Arthropod”, Nature 433: 375 (2005).


HIV-evolution [rapid evolution, using phylogenetic methods to trace origin]

Lab exercise: “A viral mystery”.  A case of dentist to patient transmission that was unraveled using phylogenetic analysis of the viruses.  Developed by David Baum, Univ. of Wisconsin – Madison (see Appendix 1 of Teaching Evolution Resource Kit).


Human evolution [common ancestry]

The DNA of humans is about 96% the same as chimpanzees, if you include ‘junk DNA’ regions. If you include only regions you can align for human and chimp, the similarity is about 99%. The average protein differs by less than 2 amino acids. In total there are 40 million differences between the two genomes. The chimp genome was sequenced in 2005.

WWW: Science, Evolution: Breakthrough of the Year, 2005.

Article: The Chimpanzee Sequencing and Analysis Consortium, ”Initial Sequence of the Chimpanzee Genome and Comparison with the Human Genome”, Nature 437: 69 (2005).

Article: Z. Cheng et al., ”A Genome-Wide Comparison of Recent Chimpanzee and Human Segmental Duplications”, Nature 437: 88 (2005).

WWW: Nature Web Focus, the chimpanzee genome [with list of additional articles].


Language evolution in humans

For general reading nothing beats Pinkers (1994) book.

Book: S. Pinker, The Language Instinct, W. Morrow and Co., New York, 1994.

Article: W. Enard, et al., “Molecular evolution of FOXP2, a gene involved in speech and language”. Nature 418:869-872 (2002).

Article: J. Zhang, et al., “Accelerated protein evolution and origins of human-specific features: Foxp2 as an example”, Genetics 162: 1825-1835 (2002).

Article: S. E. Fisher & G. F. Marcus,  “The eloquent ape: genes, brains and the evolution of language”, Nature Reviews Genetics 7: 9-20 (2006). [Recent review on genes and language evolution]


Language and culture evolution

Article: R. Mace & C. J. Holden, “A phylogenetic approach to cultural evolution”, Trends in Ecology & Evolution 20: 116-121 (2005). The authors use phylogenetic methods to study cultural and language interchanges through history.


Lice and the origin of human clothing

By dating the origin of body lice, the time of the origin of human clothing could be assessed. Clothes and body lice appears to have arisen in Africa about 70 000 (plus minus 40 000) years ago.

Article: R. Kittler et al., “Molecular evolution of Pediculus humanus and the origin of clothing”, Current Biology 13: 1414-1417 (2003).


NJ geology and fossil plants from NJ

USGS, Geology of the New York City region, Atlantic Coastal Plain [Central and South New Jersey], Newark Basin, and Valley and Ridge Province (NJ Highlands).[map of field locations]

Article: Crepet & Nixon, "Exceptionally rich deposits of angiosperm floral, fruit, and leaf remains from the Late Cretaceous of New Jersey", American Journal of Botany 85: 1273-1288. (1998) [About the 90 million year old flowers of the Sayreville sand pits, which also have yielded amber].


Protein evolution

Review article: C. Chothia, “Evolution of the Protein Repertoire”, Science 300: 1701-1703 (2003).

Article: B. S. Chang et al., “Recreating a functional ancestral archosaur visual pigment”, Mol. Biol. Evol. 19: 1483-1489 (2002)


Radiometric dating of rocks

Article: R. Wiens, “Radiometric Dating – A Christian perspective. Good introductory article about the different radiometric dating techniques.

WWW: Clair Patterson. Add a historical perspective by focusing on the work of this researcher.


Sex and the Single Guppy [natural selection, adaptation]

Developed through a PBS partnership based on John Endler’s work.

WWW: PBS Evolution program; Natural Selection simulation: Sex and the Single Guppy


Sticklebacks (fishes) [adaptation]

Stickleback populations that became isolated in inland lakes after the last Ice Age in Europe have independently lost their armor plates since they no longer have marine predators. However, these independent losses are due to the same preexisting DNA defect, that was rare in the ocean, but now is common in the lake populations, showing fast adaptations to new environments.

WWW: Science, Evolution: Breakthrough of the Year, 2005.

Article: P.F. Colosimo et al., “Widespread Parallel Evolution in Sticklebacks by Repeated Fixation of Ectodysplasin Alleles”, Science 307: 1928 (2005).

Article: G. Gibson, “The Synthesis and Evolution of a Supermodel”, Science 307: 1890 (2005).


Sunflowers [hybridization, adaptation, speciation]

Loren Rieseberg has studied the speciation of sunflowers through hybridization, chromosome changes, and new ecological niches. Hybrid species have been shown to be ecologically different from parent species, taking on new ecological niches. 

WWW: Rieseberg lab home page.

Article: L. H. Rieseberg et al., “Major ecological transitions in annual sunflowers facilitated by hybridization”, Science 301: 1211-1216 (2003); Science Perspectives, Science 301: 1189-1190. (2003);

Article: C.R. Linder & L.H. Rieseberg, “Reconstructing patterns of reticulate evolution in plants”,  American Journal of Botany 91: 1700-1708 (2004).


Survival of the fittest is not necessarily good for the species

Example of fittest organisms succeeding, and yet leading to low population fitness. Parthenogenetic animals can have a twofold advantage of reproduction.  A mutation that allows a female to produce only daughters that are clones of herself can swiftly replace an entire sexual population.  However the population is reduced long-term chance of persistence. 

Article: R. L. Dunbrack, et al., “The Cost of Males and the Paradox of Sex - Experimental Investigation of the Short-Term Competitive Advantages of Evolution in Sexual Populations”, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B-Biological Sciences 262: 45-49 (1995).


Symmetry in flowers in the African violet family

There are several recent studies where gene expression and phylogenetic studies has been interlinked to explain the evolution of particular characters, this is one example.

Article: Smith, J. F., et al., “Evolution of GCYC, a Gesneriaceae homolog of CYCLOIDEA, within subfamily Gesnerioideae (Gesneriaceae)”, Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 31: 765-779 (2004).


Tree-thinking and phylogenies

Introducing tree thinking (how to read a tree, how a tree is not a ladder, the idea the evolution is ongoing, that living species are not ancestors, etc.) can been helpful.  It can work as an organizing scheme for parts of the same course or other courses.

Article: D. Baum et al., “The Tree-thinking Challenge”, Science 310: 979-980 (2005).

Lab exercises: Science, Tree-thinking quizzes I and II, [excellent examples for courses, view in color]


Virus-tracking among cattle and other animals during an outbreak

Using phylogenetic analysis, the source or transmitter of virus can be analyzed using evolutionary methods. This example investigated pseudorabies virus strains in Illinois in 1989.

Article: T. L. Goldberg, “Application of phylogeny reconstruction and character-evolution analysis to inferring patterns of directional microbial transmission”, Preventive Veterinary Medicine 61: 59-70 (2003).




Relationships of all organisms (phylogenetics)


Comparative studies – how closely related are these organisms?

For comparative studies, put organisms also in evolutionary context: - OK, they are different, but how closely related are there and how much of the difference is inherited from different or common ancestors?  This is important for ecology, environmental sciences, physiology, molecular biology, neurology, etc. To find phylogenetic information for particular organisms, try these resources:


Evolution of Life

WWW: Tree of Life web site, a collaborative effort of biologists from around the world. The project provides information about the diversity of organisms on Earth, their evolutionary history (phylogeny), and characteristics. You can navigate through the tree of Life on this website

WWW: UC Berkeley: Life on Earth project

Article: S. Baldau, “The Deep Roots of Eukaryotes”, Science 300: 1703-1706 (2003).

Article: M. J. Benton & F. J. Ayala, “Dating the Tree of Life”, Science 300: 1698-1700 (2003).

Review article: P. J. Keeling et al., “The tree of eukaryotes”, Trends in Ecology and Evolution 20: 670-675.


Microbes, Protists, etc.

Article: T. M. Wassenaar, “Bacteria: More than pathogens”, Action Bioscience (July 2002).



WWW: Tree of life: Metazoa

WWW: AnimalDiversity Web

WWW: Nature magazine: Chimpanzee genome resources Features articles and research on chimps.



WWW: Iowa State Entomology Index of Internet resources includes image galleries, keys, teaching resources and software.

WWW: Digital dragonflies. The site contains detailed scans of living dragonflies.

WWW: Orthoptera species file online. Look up images of grasshoppers and crickets and hear their songs. This is a good example of what a museum can do with its dead bugs. 



WWW: Tree of Life: Fungi

WWW: UCMP Berkeley’s introduction to the Fungi

Textbook: G. M. Mueller et al., Biodiversity of Fungi, Elsevier Academic Press, 2004.

Article: Lutzoni et al., “Assembling the fungal tree of life: progress, classification, and evolution of subcellular traits, Amer. J. Bot. 91: 1446-1480, 2004.



WWW: Tree of Life: Green plants

WWW: Botany and Plant Systematics, on-line Subject Research Guide at Rutgers Libraries.

Textbook: Plant Systematics by Michael G. Simpson, Elsevier Academic Press, 2005.

Textbook: Plant Systematics, a phylogenetic approach, W. Judd et al., ed. 2, Sinauer.

Articles: The October 2004 issue of American Journal of Botany was dedicated to The Tree of Plants, and includes a variety of review articles, including algae, fungi, evolution of plant development, fossils, reticulate evolution, ferns, dinoflagellates, red and green algae, and plastid evolution.

Review article: E. M. Friis et al., “When Earth started blooming: insights from the fossil record”, Current Opinion in Plant Biology 8: 5-12 (2005).



Examples and ideas for specific course topics


Many resources and ideas for course topics such as evolution, anthropology, genetics, geology, systematics, etc., are not listed here since they already are evolutionarily to a large degree and resources are readily available. But, for those courses, examples and resources can be drawn from many areas below. Note that some example topics below do not address biological evolution, but how evolutionary methods can be used in other disciplines, or topics that are related to evolution or geology and cosmology through  the 'change through  time' concept.


For resources in the form of researchers and evolutionary research within Rutgers, please see the EVOLUTION at Rutgers web page.


Agriculture, agronomy, animal and plant sciences

* evolution of DDT resistance

* evolution of herbicide resistance

* domestication of crops and animal

* breeding, artificial selection vs. natural selection

* hybridization of species, polyploidization in plants

* pollination mechanisms and their evolution, co-evolution with pollinators

* Improvement of wild crops into larger, tastier fruits

* Deselection against toxic compounds in food products (example cassava)

Example: evolution of corn and wheat

Example: evolution of fleshy tomatoes from dry capsules (fruit-type evolution in Solanaceae; see Example list in this toolkit).

Example: Fig and fig wasp co-evolution (see examples above).

Review article: I. Denholm et al., “Insecticide resistance on the move”, Science 297: 2222- 2223 (2002).


Art, art history, fashion

* evolution of symmetry and asymmetry in living organisms

* evolution of pigments and coloring patterns

* Biological illustration, accuracy and invention

Example: Haeckel

Example: Evolution of clothes and lice (see examples above).



Examples: cricket, black cap, and corn borer studies (see examples above).


Biology introductory courses:

·         Start with the large and familiar – elephants, turkeys, cows, and oaks, then go deeper into cells, molecules and microcosms to explain science. This grabs the attention and pulls them into the subject.

·         Make it relevant to the students’ own lives and interests, talk about evolution of resistance to antibiotics, bird flu, anything sex-related, and psychoactive plants, dogs, and parasites are also popular.

·         Introductory biology is often taught from a structure-function approach, but instead information such as animal organ systems and plant structures and their functioning could be placed in a phylogenetic context.

·         If you can get them to understand that birds ARE Dinosaurs, they begin to grasp phylogenetic taxonomy.

·         Understanding that chimps are more closely related to humans than they are to gorillas is a good introduction to phylogenetics as well, since “body covered with black hair” is a plesiomorphy, or ancestral condition.

·         Bring in a stick (full of twigs). Hold it in your left hand. Break a piece off in with your right hand.  You now have a monophyletic group in your right hand, and a paraphyletic group in your left.

·         Tree-thinking is crucial to all evolutionary understanding (see examples above).


Some thoughts from university professors:

“I have also placed more emphasis on distinguishing biological evolution from topics that aren't actually part of biological evolution. Specifically, I bring in some cosmology to explain that biological evolution is not a theory about the origin of the universe, some biochemistry to explain that biological evolution is not a theory about the origin of life, and some geochemistry to explain how radiometric dating is used as a tool in the study of biological evolution. I also spend more time now presenting evidence of evolution from paleontology, biogeography, and molecular biology. I also point out some of the major questions that lack answers (e.g., holes in our understanding of the genetic and developmental mechanisms).”

Greg Adkinson, Western Carolina University,  (quoted with permission)


“We have an advantage here at BYU [Brigham Young University] in that we know the religious mindset of most of our students.  So I started by first dispelling the myth that scientists are atheists.  This, I think, is an important misconception to deal with, especially for evolutionary biologists.  Second, I listed seven different "tenets of creationism" from the creation research center's homepage that go totally against Mormon doctrine.  So after this first 20 minutes, students who thought they were creationists (many of them) now can no longer count themselves creationists because they don't believe all these creationist ideas.  So now I have them where I want them ... THINKING (for a change).”

Keith Crandall, Brigham Young University,  (quoted with permission)


“Bio students are fed a litany of facts from their first grade-school classes.  Evolution provides an opportunity to base learning on inquiry and hypothesis-driven predictions.  Darwin's Origin is a great example for how the scientific method works.  He allows that creation theory could make predictions about expected design features.  He contrasts those predictions with predictions from Lamarckian transformism and his descent with modification.  Getting the students to derive their own predictions is difficult, but important for learning how science works by falsifying competing hypotheses.”

David Fitch, New York University,  (quoted with permission)



* protein evolution

* natural product chemistry, phytochemistry

* medicinal plants, ethnobotany

* evolution of chemical defenses


Computational Biology

* calculation of phylogenetic relationships, tree-building

* population genetics

* modeling of processes



* evolution of adaptation

* how much of environmental responses are due to inherent factors?

* environmental niches and their role in speciation

Ecological processes can be dependent of or interact with evolutionary processes.  For an example of this, see Wiens & Donoghue’s review article, on plant species richness in the tropics (see examples above).

Example: Stickleback loss of armor (see Example list in this toolkit).

Example: Sunflower speciation (see examples above).



Review Article: J. A. Eisen & C. M. Fraser, “Phylogenomics: Intersection of Evolution and Genomics”, Science 300: 1706ff (2003).


History, political science

* reaction to the publication of Darwin’s “Origin of Species” locally

* historical researchers and explorers

* impact of evolutionary research on teaching and politics



* evolution of languages on Earth

* evolution of speech in humans

Examples: Language evolution, genes that affect development of language (see examples above).


Medicine, human health

* Antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria [Question for students: Why shouldn't you take antibiotics whenever you feel like you might be getting sick?]

* AZT resistance of HIV virus inside one individual [rapid evolution, affects individuals]

Examples: 1918 influenza and bird flu studies (see examples above).

Example: Evolution of clothes and lice (see examples above).


Molecular Biology

Book: Caroll, S. B., Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the making of the Animal Kingdom, W. W. Norton & Company, 2005.


Organismal Survey courses (Herpetology, Invertebrates, Vascular Plants, Insects, etc.)

These can be done from a phylogenetic perspective, using tree-thinking, evolution of derived characters, and phylogenies to give students a visual backbone to categorize and understand biodiversity and the evolution within a group. At Rutgers, this is done in the Plant Systematics class taught by Lena Struwe. See Tree of Life resources in this toolkit for more information.


Pathology, parasitology, plant pathology, weed science

Example: corn borer study (see examples above).



* evolution in the context of history

* philosophy of science



This is often taught from a structure-function approach, but instead information such as animal organ systems and plant structures and their functioning could be placed in a phylogenetic context.


Plant Molecular Biology

Comparative gene expression and gene evolution can highlight evolutionary processes and how the genotype and phenotype has evolved.

Example: symmetry in flowers in the African violet family (see examples above).

Example: Horizontal gene transfer in plants (see examples above).

Example: MADS box gene evolution and flower development (see examples above).



Dr. Hal Herzog, Western Carolina University, bases most of his teaching on evolutionary principles. He studies the interactions of humans with animals, and one of his favorite teaching topics is the prevalence of particular dog breeds based on human preferences. He has shown that breed popularity over time follow a pattern called cultural drift, which is similar to random genetic drift in biological evolution.

WWW: Hal Herzog research home page.

WWW:, Hot dogs follow fashion.

Article: Herzog, H., et al., “Random drift and large shifts in the popularity of dog breeds”, The Royal Society Biology Letters (2004).