Backyard evolution

Peruse my bookshelves and you’ll find a suspiciously large number of the titles are devoted to wildlife and plants. There’s the western North America bird book; the natural history of neotropical mammals; Field Guide to Grasses of California; animal skulls, feathers, and wildlife tracking books. Leafing through them, there are juicy tidbits and eyebrow-raising facts. A toucan’s gargantuan bill is really just for thermoregulation? All slugs are hermaphrodites? Beaver mate for life? The tabloids have nothing on my bathroom reading.

Most remarkable is that these field guides have gotten it wrong – the blurb and picture describing the American robin in my backyard also refers to the American robin winging its way through the mountains in Arizona or along the coast in British Columbia. A robin is a robin is a robin. Most of us see a species as a monolith, a group with a set of traits so static that they can be summed up in a John James Audubon oil painting, whose individual members can mate and reproduce. But the reality is far more nuanced.

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