Evolution is the process of adaptation through mutation, natural selection, and genetic drift which allows more desirable characteristics to pass to the next generation. Over time, populations evolve more characteristics that are beneficial to their survival. For living organisms to adapt and change to environmental pressures, genetic variation must be present. With genetic variation, individuals have differences in form and function that allow some to survive certain conditions better than others. These organisms pass their favorable traits to their offspring. Eventually, environments change, and what was once a desirable, advantageous trait may become an undesirable trait and organisms may further evolve. Evolution may be convergent with similar traits evolving in multiple species or divergent with diverse traits evolving in multiple species that came from a common ancestor. We can observe evidence of evolution by means of DNA code and the fossil record, and also by the existence of homologous and vestigial structures.
Speciation occurs along two main pathways: geographic separation (allopatric speciation) and through mechanisms that occur within a shared habitat (sympatric speciation). Both pathways isolate a population reproductively in some form. Mechanisms of reproductive isolation act as barriers between closely related species, enabling them to diverge and exist as genetically independent species. Prezygotic barriers block reproduction prior to formation of a zygote; whereas, postzygotic barriers block reproduction after fertilization occurs. For a new species to develop, something must introduce a reproductive barrier. Sympatric speciation can occur through errors in meiosis that form gametes with extra chromosomes (polyploidy). Autopolyploidy occurs within a single species; whereas, allopolyploidy occurs between closely related species.
Speciation is not a precise division: overlap between closely related species can occur in areas called hybrid zones. Organisms reproduce with other similar organisms. The fitness of these hybrid offspring can affect the two species' evolutionary path. Scientists propose two models for the rate of speciation: one model illustrates how a species can change slowly over time. The other model demonstrates how change can occur quickly from a parent generation to a new species. Both models continue to follow natural selection patterns.