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The first study on the selective pressure of motor vehicle traffic on birds has just been published in Current Biology. Eighty-million birds are killed on U.S. roadways each year. Therefore, Charles Brown and Mary Bomberger Brown write, “We might expect natural selection to favor individuals that either learn to avoid cars or that have other traits making them less likely to collide with vehicles. If so, the frequency of road kill should decline over time. No information is available for any species on whether the extent of road-associated mortality has changed.”1 To fill this gap in bird demographics, they’ve spent three decades studying living and dead cliff swallows in southwestern Nebraska. These birds were a good choice to study because they build mud nests on highway overpasses. After controlling for the volume of traffic, the population of scavengers, and other factors, they determined that the number of cliff sparrows killed by passing cars has steadily decreased. Over the same time period, the average wing length in the population has decreased by 4 millimeters, but among dead birds wing length has remained unchanged. Why might longer wings cause more collisions? Aerodynamically, longer wings slow the rate of vertical takeoff, decreasing the opportunity to fly upward quickly and get out of the way. Though other factors may be involved, the researchers strongly suspect traffic has exerted selective pressure, imparting a survival advantage to birds with shorter wings. This study illustrates how rapidly natural selection can act to produce variation within a species. But of course nothing in the study has anything to do with evolution of new kinds of animals. It most certainly has nothing to do with the origin of birds or wings or feathers. All the genetic information for swallows with shorter wings was in the swallow genome at the beginning, and the process by which wings became four millimeters shorter doesn’t explain where the longer wings came from in the first place. In fact, nothing in the Current Biology journal article even mentions these birds “evolving.” The popular press, however, headlines their report “Swallows are evolving shorter wings because they keep getting hit by traffic” and quotes Dr. Charles Brown explaining, “Evolution is an ongoing process, and all this - roads, SUVs, and all - is part of nature or 'the wild'; they exert selection pressures in a way we don't usually think about.”2 It is vital to understand that animals do vary within their created kinds—as seen here—and to recognize that this process does not lend support to the idea that new and more complex kinds of organisms can evolve.
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