Animals come in sorts of shapes and sizes, but why they have to be so different from each other remains a mystery to evolutionary biologists. But a recent computer simulation suggests that body types remain simple when placed in simple environments, but evolve into complex shapes when things get challenging.
Evolutionary biologists are interested in how the complexity of an organism's body plan, or morphology, is influenced by the complexity of the environment in which it evolves. Needless to say, it's impossible to watch evolution in real-time given the extreme time spans involved. To overcome this, computational biologists Joshua Auerbach and Josh Bongard employed simulations capable of evolving the body plans of virtual organisms. Their results now appear in PLoS Computational Biology.
To get their virtual organisms to evolve, the researchers developed a scenario in which 'survival of the fittest' (i.e., selection) meant 'survival of the best means of locomotion.' But unlike previous simulations involving overly simple and flat environments, Auerbach and Bongard introduced their virtual animals (or bots, depending on your persuasion) to complex environments, namely surfaces consisting of two types: a high-friction terrain and a very low-friction surface akin to a sheet of ice.