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The Riddle of the Red Queen

Exploring Evolution and Extinction


Rebecca L. Hite
Department of Curriculum and Instruction
Texas Tech University


This case study introduces students to the "Red Queen Hypothesis." The hypothesis states that when two species compete for a limited resource or exist in a predator-prey relationship, in order for the antagonists to remain in relative population equilibrium, there must be ongoing and reciprocal adaptation on each side. If one species fails to adapt, it may quickly face extinction. Students are introduced to the Red Queen Hypothesis through an excerpt from Lewis Carroll's novel, Through the Looking Glass, in which Alice meets the Red Queen. They then review experiments from the research literature to evaluate the validity of the hypothesis in extant populations.  Students culminate their learning by contrasting their knowledge of the Red Queen Hypothesis to Darwinian evolutionary theory based on a passage from On the Origin of Species.  Students then craft a letter to Darwin helping to explain his "wedge" theory, a notion he originally developed but removed from later iterations of his book due to a lack of experimental evidence. Originally developed for advanced high school biology students, the case also may be used in a college-level introductory course on evolutionary biology.

  • Recognize aspects of an allegory to identify features of the Red Queen Hypothesis.
  • Explain using graphic data how populations respond to Red Queen conditions.
  • Evaluate the research literature supporting the idea of the Red Queen Hypothesis.
  • Interpret data to describe the Red Queen Hypothesis in a naturalistic experiment.
  • Compare the Red Queen Hypothesis to other terms of evolutionary theory, both historical and present.
Keywords: red queen hypothesis; coevolution; antagonistic evolution; sexual reproduction; extinction; adaptive strategies; host-parasite relationship; Charles Darwin; Lewis Carroll
Topical Area: N/A, History of science
Educational Level: High school, Undergraduate upper division
Formats: PDF
Type/Method: Directed, Discussion
Language: English
Subject Headings: Biology (General)   Evolutionary Biology   Zoology  
Date Posted: 12/22/2017
Date Modified: 07/13/2019
Copyright: Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.

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