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A Mini-Lesson


The Selection and Variation in the
Egyptian Origami Bird
(Avis papyrus)

Karin Westerling
ENSI 1992




Variation and Natural Selection

 NEW ARTICLE: Common Misconceptions about Natural Selection. Go to our Evolution Introduction page, scroll down to bottom of page for "A Few Very Common Misconceptions" and a link to the excellent article that exposes a number of widely held misconceptions, with clues for correcting them (June 2009).

NEW LESSON: The Galapagos Origami Bird - Its DNA Connection:
This new lesson is based on Westerling's Origami Birds, and the research by Dr. Yamanoi. Students experience how the random mutations they produce can result in random variations, from which environmental factors allow certain variations to survive and reject others. Emphasis is on the random events and their interaction with selective pressures in the environment, showing that the birds do NOT adapt (or develop adaptations) in order to fly longer distances, or because they need to adapt. Those are Lamarckian teleological inferences that are not supported by scientific study.

For several STEM Applications of Natural Selection


Students participate in a contrived natural selection simulation in which they build and modify simple paper airplanes ("Origami Birds").


Students will demonstrate that:
Mutations occur randomly. They are NOT purposely designed or intended to meet current survival needs.

2. Selection is based on (contingent with) what the current environment allows to survive/reproduce.
Selection is NOT based on the immediate "needs" of the organism.

3. Inherited characteristics (whether mutated or not) are contingent on the genetic features available and the current environmental conditions.

4. Divergent evolution may occur when two sub-populations face two different environments.

5. Convergent evolution may result in different populations independently solving a similar problem by producing similar features.

6. ne cause of speciation is isolation of sub-populations.

Concepts Clarified by the DNA Extension:
7. Phenotype is linked to the genes. A change in a gene (due to mutation) can cause a change in a trait.

8. Natural selection is not Lamarckian: changes do NOT occur "in order to" or "so that" an organism can survive. Changes do NOT occur because the organism "needs them in order to survive."

9. Mutation is not "speciation." Typically, a single mutation does not produce a new species. It takes an accumulation of mutations over time, producing gradual changes in phenotypes, until a sufficiently changed group (population) can be called a new species.


 Paper, tape, straws, coin, six-sided die.

1 cm grid (17x24 cm) for easy-to-measure wing cutouts

   CLICK HERE for PDF version of handouts
(3 pages)

Intro, procedures, data table and questions.



The activity abstract, teaching strategy, extensions, and an early data table, are available at Access Excellence as a lesson created by AE Fellow, Karin Westerling, who was also previously an ENSI participant (1992), where this lesson was first conceptualized. Click on her name to get that material (including suggested responses to discussion questions). This will take you out of the ENSI web site. To return, just click the "Back" arrow on your browser.

A formatted handout, data table with some "typical results", will be found under "Student Handouts" (above) in a PDF file. Although these handouts are "adapted for middle school use", they could easily be used in any high school class. These are not available as such in the version on the AE site. For sample answers to the questions, contact the webmaster.

There are some caveats pointed out by the author in her AE version. However, this lesson can provide an interesting and engaging activity to help illustrate some of the elements of natural selection, for all levels of Biology, from AP to Sheltered Biology or Life Science, middle school through high school.

NOTES AND TIPS from the author, Karin Westerling:
1. The Origami Bird lab can take several days to complete.

2. I found that some kids do not understand that the mutations accumulate! Watch for kids who keep mutating from the original parent - they never will get anywhere. Once I came to middle school, I developed a data collection sheet to facilitate planning and recording the birds over the generations. (Nancy Clark has this data collection sheet in the Origami Bird download at her excellent web site - about the 12th item down the list.) While circulating around the room, I sometimes actually circle the winning bird to emphasize to the students that they need to use the far flyer as the parent of the next generation.

3. To hustle the kids along, I print 1 cm grids on regular copy paper (see 17x24 cm grid in pdf file under Materials above). The kids simply count the squares to measure out their wings. I encourage them to write the dimensions of the wings on the paper prior to rolling them up. This facilitates recycling parts which is not only faster but saves paper, too. The kids use tape to make the wings and attach them to the straws - glue would take way to long to dry.

4. Students never quantify the distance flown but simply observe which bird flew the furthest and breed from that one. There is no coloring.

Find the "Extension" page - last page in the PDF file. There are three options (A,B,C) and 3 questions (5-7).

5. Middle schools do not do the extensions (birds which don't fly, birds which boomerang). When teaching high school, I would assign which lab group would do which extension. Less flexible groups were assigned to continue working on far flight rather than risk confusing them with a new selection strategy.

6. One other thought. Until last year my school had only one science course for seventh grade. Everybody, special ed, regular ed, English learners, gifted, were in the same room. We now have GATE science. The top ~20% of the student body is in the GATE sections. This has led to some interesting insights. I used to think that most of my students were grasping really difficult concepts. I now suspect that sometimes most gifted students understood but many of the other students were just copying! I am really working on making my regular science lessons more concrete in the hopes that student understanding will increase through developmentally appropriate activities. I do the Origami Birds in the seventh grade gifted classes. The regular seventh grade class found the concept difficult and were not mature enough to build birds according to a specific set of rules. They would create "intelligently designed" birds with 6 wings and concatenated bodies three straws long! Aerodynamically it was fascinating but I fear the kids were leaving the room having their preconceptions/misconceptions reinforced! Locally, there has been a push to shift biology from a sophomore class into a freshman class. Having taught mostly freshmen and sophomores for 15 years prior to metamorphosing into a middle school teacher, it occurs to me that some, younger, high schoolers still might not be ready for a lab where they throw things for days.

Karin Westerling (3.27.08)
Matthew Gage Middle School
Riverside, CA

This version was adapted from Karin's original version by Wisconsin teacher Thomas Wanamaker (WANA), which, in turn, was modied slightly again (with a few more discussion questions) by Indiana teacher Kathy Hallett. WANA's version was called "Natural Selection of the Galapagos Origami Bird (with appropriate changes in the Intro.).His discussion question #5 was "If the environment in which your bird species lived was to gradually change in such a way that eventually the birds had to fly at least 900 cm in order to "survive", what do you think would happen? Explain."

I would have reworded this slightly to say: "... eventually only birds that flew at least 900 cm survived, what do you think would happen? Explain." [We should avoid ever using phrases like "in order to..." or "so that...", as they suggest intention or conscious need, not natural selection, and that reflects erroneous Lamarckian thinking. Don't let your kids do this, either!]

Kathy simply replaced WANA's question #6 with 4 other good questions. She also modified the title slightly to say "Natural Selection of the Carmel Origami Bird."

For a good overview of Natural Selection, and an alert to some common misconceptions about it, take a look at the handy summary: "Comparing Evolution Mechanisms" near the bottom of the "Introduction to Evolution" page. Darwin's and Lamarck's essential elements are compared, and a few common misconceptions are clarified. Scroll down to download the PDF file of this information.



NEW LESSON: The Galapagos Origami Bird
and Its DNA Connection

A recent study (June 2012) in Japan has added a DNA connection to Karin’s Origami Bird lesson. In doing so, this has integrated an important (but simplified) molecular aspect to the process of natural selection, and this, in turn, has improved student understanding about mistaken Lamarckian (directional and teleological) aspects, and the randomness of mutations. Students' general understanding of natural selection was significantly improved as well. Materials for doing this Japanese version are provided. Furthermore, this extension helps to satisfy a few of the NGSS Performance Expectations for middle and high school natural selection.



Some of the ideas in this lesson may have been adapted from earlier, unacknowledged sources without our knowledge. If the reader believes this to be the case, please let us know, and appropriate corrections will be made. Thanks.

1. Original Source: Karin Westerling, 1992

2. Revised by K. Westerling 5/96

3. Presented by K. Westerling at NABT Reno (11/98)

4. Variation adapted by K. Westerling for middle school (11/02)

5. Variations by teachers Thomas Wanamaker and Kathy Hallet added (3/08)

6. Edited / Revised for ENSI website by L. Flammer 5/99, 11/02, 3/08, 7/2013


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