Evolution Is Happening, Here and Now

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Evolution by chance: random events shaped and changed the genetic composition of
Evolution by chance: random events shaped and changed the genetic composition of today's ibex populations. (Image: Zoologisches Museum, UZH)
A new special exhibition at the Zoological Museum of the University of Zurich shines the spotlight on evolution and its consequences in our everyday lives. The exhibition, which uses examples from medicine, agriculture and nature conservation, has been put together by members of the University Research Priority Program (URPP) Evolution in Action: From Genomes to Ecosystems.

Evolution is often thought of as a slow process taking place over millions of years, exemplified by the dinosaurs and largely completed since the appearance of modern humans. But evolutionary processes are happening all the time, even in the here and now, and sometimes so quickly that we can observe them directly. They can be seen in the emergence of antibiotic resistance, for example, or in the progression of the current coronavirus pandemic. Where there is life there is change. The ongoing process of evolution is the subject of the new special exhibition at the Zoological Museum of the University of Zurich, "evolution happens!".

Evolutionary processes shape daily life

"We want to make visitors aware of the evolutionary processes in our everyday lives," says Beat Keller, former co-director of the URPP Evolution in Action and co-initiator of the exhibition. "Because only an informed society is in a position to make sensible decisions on current global challenges. Evolution plays a central role in issues such as food security, antibiotic resistance, and the adaptation of ecosystems to climate change."

Dumb crickets and stubborn bucks

Rock pocket mice that are better camouflaged than their light-colored conspecifics thanks to their dark fur, silent male crickets that parasites avoid, or lizards that survive hurricanes thanks to their specially shaped feet are used as illustrative examples of the multi-stage process of evolution. Certain events initially alter the survival and reproductive chances of specific individuals, and subsequently the genetic composition of an entire population is changed. The core message of the exhibition is the fact that such alterations can sometimes be observed in real time. For example, UZH studies show how new pathogens arise in agriculture or how the interplay between pollinators and flowers influences entire ecosystems. On the other hand, the reintroduction of the ibex into the wild in Switzerland has shown that evolution does not always lead to adaptation.

Learning about evolution in an interactive and playful way

Exhibits such as a live ticker that estimates mutation rates in bacterial populations and a container showing the number of antibiotics consumed across Switzerland in a day demonstrate the elusive parameters that drive evolution. Numerous interactive components invite visitors to try things out for themselves, while large-scale projected games allow visitors to really immerse themselves in individual topics. Using the exhibition’s accompanying app, visitors can adopt different roles - for example an owl that catches different mice depending on their camouflage, thereby changing the genetic composition of an entire population of mice. The app can be downloaded free of charge in advance and can also be used outside the museum.

Exhibition design reflects evolutionary dynamics

The Zurich-based conceptual agency raumprodukt gmbh is responsible for the design of the exhibition. The interactive installations and animations give a feeling of constant motion which reflects the dynamism and continually changing forms of evolution. The exhibition space is dark, and its boundaries seem diffuse; in contrast, the individual stations of the exhibition are brightly lit. Lines like family trees run through the room, indicating direct relationships and branches in the evolutionary process.

Focus on young visitors

The various thematic islands use visual language, with scientific drawings, colorful infographics and comic-strip style elements. The exhibition design and the multiple digital contents are specifically intended to inspire a young audience, says Lukas Keller: "Puberty is the phase of life with the most rapid changes. So it’s an ideal age to learn in depth about evolution, which is an unparalleled machine of change." Starting after the summer holidays, workshops for school classes will therefore also be offered.

Special exhibition "evolution happens!"

Zoological Museum of the University of Zurich
Karl-Schmid-Strasse 4, 8006 Zurich
15 June - 28 November 2021
Tue-Sun, 10.00a.m.-5.00p.m., free admission