Types of Natural Selection: Disruptive Selection

Disruptive selection is a type of natural selection that selects against the average individual in a population. The makeup of this type of population would show phenotypes (individuals with groups of traits) of both extremes but have very few individuals in the middle. Disruptive selection is the rarest of the three types of natural selection and can lead to the deviation in a species line.

Basically, it comes down to the individuals in the group who get to mate—who survive best—are the ones who have traits on the extreme ends of the spectrum. The individual with just middle-of-the-road characteristics is not as successful at survival and/or breeding to further pass on "average" genes. In contrast, a population functions in stabilizing selection mode when the intermediate individuals are the most populous. Disruptive selection occurs in times of change, such as habitat change or change in resources availability.

Disruptive Selection and Speciation

The bell curve is not typical in shape when exhibiting disruptive selection. In fact, it looks almost like two separate bell curves. There are peaks at both extremes and a very deep valley in the middle, where the average individuals are represented. Disruptive selection can lead to speciation, with two or more different species forming and the middle-of-the-road individuals being wiped out. Because of this, it's also called diversifying selection, and it drives evolution.

Disruptive selection happens in large populations with lots of pressure for the individuals to find advantages or niches as they compete with each other for food to survive and/or partners to pass on their lineage.

Like directional selection, disruptive selection can be influenced by human interaction. Environmental pollution can drive disruptive selection to choose different colorings in animals for survival. See the peppered moths example below.

Disruptive Selection Examples: Color

Color, in regards to camouflage, serves as a useful example in many different kinds of species, because those individuals that can hide from predators the most effectively will live the longest. If an environment has extremes, those who don't blend into either will be eaten the most quickly, whether they're rabbits, rats, beetles, moths, oysters, toads, or another animal.

Peppered moths: One of the most studied examples of disruptive selection is the case of ​London's peppered moths. In rural areas, the peppered moths were almost all a very light color. However, these same moths were very dark in color in industrial areas. Very few medium-colored moths were seen in either location. The darker-colored moths survived predators in the industrial areas by blending in with the polluted surroundings. The lighter moths were seen easily by predators in industrial areas and were eaten. The opposite happened in the rural areas. The medium-colored moths were easily seen in both locations and were therefore very few of them left after disruptive selection.​​

Oysters: Light- and dark-colored oysters could also have a camouflage advantage as opposed to their medium-colored relatives. Light-colored oysters would blend into the rocks in the shallows, and the darkest would blend better into the shadows. The ones in the intermediate range would show up against either backdrop, offering those oysters no advantage and make them easier prey. Thus, with fewer of the medium individuals surviving to reproduce, the population eventually has more oysters colored to either extreme of the spectrum.

Disruptive Selection Examples: Feeding Ability

Of course, evolution and speciation isn't all a straight line. Often there are multiple pressures on a group of individuals, or a drought pressure, for example, is just temporary, so the intermediate individuals don't completely disappear or don't disappear right away. Timeframes in evolution are long. All types of a diverging species can coexist if there are enough resources for them all. Specialization in food sources among a population might occur in fits and starts, only when there is some pressure on supply.

Mexican spadefoot toad tadpoles: Spadefoot tadpoles have higher populations in the extremes of their shape, with each type having a more dominant eating pattern. The more omnivorous individuals are round-bodied, and the more carnivorous are narrow-bodied. The intermediate types are smaller (less well-fed) than those at either extreme of body shape and eating habit. A study found that those at the extremes had additional, alternate food resources that the intermediates didn't. The more omnivorous ones fed more effectively on pond detritus, and the more carnivorous ones were better at feeding on shrimps. Intermediate types competed with each other for food, resulting in the individuals with ability on the extremes to eat more and grow faster and better.

Darwin's finches on the Galapagos: Fifteen different species developed from a common ancestor, which existed 2 million years ago. They differ in beak style, body size, feeding behavior, and song. Multiple types of beaks have adapted to different food resources, over time. In the case of three species on Santa Cruz Island, ground finches eat more seeds and some arthropods, tree finches eat more fruits and arthropods, vegetarian finches feed on leaves and fruit, and warblers typically eat more arthropods. When food is abundant, what they eat overlaps. When it's not, this specialization, the ability to eat a certain type of food better than other species, helps them survive.