I was on the trail with campers yesterday and we found some neon yellow mushrooms. I didn’t know what they were, but one of the kids speculated they might be poisonous, and I said that yeah, sometimes bright colors are an adaptation to warn about something being dangerous.
A couple minutes later one kid, an eleven-year-old boy, said, “Rebecca, can I ask you a question?”
“Sure. What is it?”
“It’s about adaptations. How do they happen? I mean, I don’t think a bird just thinks, ‘hey, it would be great to have webbed feet,’ and a while later they appear.”
“Nope, that’s not how it happens. It’s called natural selection.” I thought for a minute about what would make a good example. “Do you know why vultures don’t have feathers on their heads?”
“Because if they did, bacteria from the dead stuff they eat would get caught in the feathers and make them sick. But imagine that a long time ago there was a normal bird, one with feathers on its head, that liked to eat dead stuff. It had a bunch of babies, and some of them had a lot of feathers on their heads and some of them didn’t, just randomly, like how we have different hair colors. And the babies grew up eating dead stuff like their parents did–”
“Oh! And the ones without feathers wouldn’t get sick!”
“Yeah, exactly, the ones with fewer feathers on their heads wouldn’t get sick as much, so they’d live longer and have more babies, and pass that trait onto them. And eventually you’d get bald vultures. Make sense?”
I know this is going to sound so corny, but he got it, and he thought that was really cool, and he thanked me genuinely for explaining it to him. And then the same kid came up to me this morning with more good questions, like how speciation happens. This is why I like my job. Whenever I get stressed about something work-related (not that that’s been happening lately – this has been a great week), all I have to do is remind myself of moments like this.