Robin GrasNatural selection best explains the evolution of species, according to an artificial ecosystem developed by computer science professor Robin Gras.

UWindsor researchers successfully simulate evolution of species

A team of UWindsor researchers have successfully proven that natural selection best explains species evolution.

Robin Gras, an associate professor in the School of Computer Science, and Canada Research Chair in Learning and Simulation for Theoretical Biology; post-doctoral student Abbas Golestani; and research contributors Andrew Hendry and Melania Cristescu of McGill University, have developed an ecosystem simulation platform they have dubbed “EcoSim,” a mathematical algorithm to study how a complex population of more than a million predator and prey individuals interacts to evolve species.

Dr. Gras says the origin of species is difficult to study in nature.

“Previous models have proved impossible to replicate, since there are so many forces that influence speciation,” he says. “EcoSim successfully created a large-scale population—one that would take thousands of years to study in nature.”

Gras and his team coded EcoSim so each artificial individual possesses a proper genome, or DNA sequence containing true physical traits and behaviours. The simulator can observe hunger, fear, curiosity and reproduction.

“This is a proper system that evolves, where the genome is coded so two parents combine and pass on their genomes, with some mutations, to their offspring,” says Gras. “This behavioural model determines how prey consumes resources and how predators consume prey.”

Once the artificial system is programmed, it is left alone to create generation after generation, while the researchers observe.

Gras says EcoSim also shows how brains can evolve, specifically how predator pressure can speed up the evolution of a prey’s brain.

“We plugged in all kinds of things that do happen in nature, that affect evolution, and found that the only needed, and strongest force was natural selection,” he says. “It is the only solution that emulates our world. This is the first time we can show, with a complex artificial system, without external bias, that natural selections and species automatically emerge. We didn’t force it. Species seem to be a direct and natural consequence of natural selection.”

The paper, Speciation without Pre-Defined Fitness Functions, was published in the September 2015 edition of the science journal PLOSone.