You might have heard the term evolution thrown around, whether in school, on the news, or maybe even by your parents. It’s a word packed full of meaning and when first hearing it, it can be a little hard to understand. But have no fear! It’s really not so bad! Come with me, and we’ll see if we can untangle this word:

First, you should put on a jacket because we are going on a journey—a cold journey far, far away, to the Arctic…. Ah, we are here. Let’s take a look around. Yes, you’re right, there is a lot snow but don’t say I didn’t warn you. Oh, look! Over there! Do you see that shape, moving in the distance? You don’t? Well, that is not very surprising because that shape is really an arctic fox, much like the fox that’d you see in, say, the United States or England, but with one large difference: it has snow-white fur, perfect for hiding and blending into the Arctic’s cold, snowy winters.  Look again! If you look closely you should be able to see a polar bear. It seems to be heading right for the arctic fox. Run, Mr. Fox! Phew, that was a close one. Our friend, the fox, did get away but not without the help of his white coat. When he saw the polar bear approaching, he simply laid down in the snow and the polar bear walked right past him! Oh gosh, I did not dress warm enough. But we’ve seen what we’ve come to see. Let’s head home and warm up by the fire.

Ah, much better. Now that we’ve warmed up, let’s talk a bit about what we just saw and what it has to do with evolution. We saw our pal, the arctic fox, escape the polar bear by using his white fur to camouflage into his surroundings. Imagine, now, for just a second, what would happen if our more familiar red fox had been in the Arctic, trying to hide from the polar bear. The polar bear would have seen him and eaten him—eek!  But thankfully, our arctic fox evolved. To evolve means to change, over a very long time. So the arctic fox changed slowly from our fox, the red-colored fox, to the white, arctic fox. “But how did this happen? How did it evolve?” you might be asking. Well, let’s work through these questions together. To do this, let’s go on another little adventure to the Arctic; however, this time we will travel many years into the past….

"Fox study 6" by Peter Trimming - Fox Study 6Uploaded by Mariomassone. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fox_study_6.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Fox_study_6.jpg

Wow, not much has changed! There is a ton of snow and it is as cold as ever. You might notice the two foxes directly ahead of us. They should be easier to spot because instead of the white coat, which helps them blend in, they have red fur. We are seeing the artic fox before it evolved. Amazing! Quick, look at the pair trying to creep up on the seabird…. That was close but the seabird got away! It could see the foxes moving towards him because they stuck out like a sore thumb. Let’s fast-forward, just a little bit…. Here we are.

Our two fox friends are still here, but how precious!—it looks like they were more than just hunting partners. Do you see the three baby foxes following close behind them? You only see two? Not surprising—one of their babies is white, just like our first arctic fox. “How did this happen?” you ask. Well, every once in a while, when an animal has a baby, something happens called a mutation, or in other words, a random change. In this case, the red fox just happened to mutate, or randomly change, into a white fox.

Let’s fast-forward again, one last time, to see how our red and white foxes fare…. Hmm, interesting. I don’t see much of, well, anything. One second, let me get out my binoculars. Oh! Take a look through these. Yes, right over there. Through the binoculars you should be able to see a family of white foxes—it looks like our baby white fox grew up and is a daddy! But where are our baby red foxes? That is a much sadder story. Remember, earlier, when we imagined what would happen if our familiar red fox had spent some time in the Arctic. That’s right: they could not hide so they’d be eaten. And, unfortunately, nature is unforgiving and our red foxes met their end. On that sad note, let’s finish our journey and make our way home.

Do you want some hot chocolate? Yes, me too. OK. So what does all of this mean in terms of evolution? Well, let’s think about it. Our red fox mutated into our white fox. Our white fox, because it was white, survived, when the red foxes did not. Because the white fox survived, it was able to have more white fox babies. Its white babies would have more white babies, as the red foxes would continue to die before they could have babies. If this process continued for thousands of years, soon all of the red foxes would die and the white foxes would rule the Arctic. And that, my friends, is evolution in a nutshell. It is now time to say goodbye. But don’t be a stranger! Come back soon and we can go on another—hopefully less cold—scientific adventure!

 

For the parents:

This is a simplification of evolution, meant as an introduction. This is probably not how the evolution of the arctic fox’s white coat actually occurred. (It was probably much more gradual.) This may be something worth mentioning to your child; however, I felt as if it was outside of the scope of this post. Thank you for your support!

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