Your Dog Licking Your Mouth is a Perfect Example of Exaptation

Elizabeth Borneman


Exaptation is the process of adaptation of a trait for a purpose other than what the trait was evolved for. For instance, an exaptation could be the use of feathers for mating displays or flight in birds which evolved feathers originally to keep warm. An exaptation is also known as pre-adaptation. Exaptation is a noun and can be used to describe many different animals or plants on Earth.

These evolutionary traits can have origins serving a function, such as feathers for keeping warm, which later evolve to do more than their original purpose. Birds evolved flight mechanisms as they increasingly needed them to escape predators on the ground and to find alternate food sources. Exaptation doesn’t just have to be physical traits, but can be behavioral as well.

An example of behavioral exaptation is the practice of wolves licking the mouths of dominant, alpha wolves to show their submission to the hierarchy of the pack. This practice was born out of the experience of baby wolves licking the mouths of their mothers for food, and later developed into dogs licking the faces of their owners. What was once an evolutionary need for food turned into a sign of submission and acquiescence.

Metabolism is one area that exaptation has also influenced in humans. Metabolism is an important part of life from the molecular level all the way up. Metabolism has changed from being a primary reason why creatures can stay alive to a process that can use exaptation to fit into new environments or biological conditions.

Exaptation isn’t always a perfect fit; like evolution itself, exaptation needs time to fully adjust to new uses. Secondary adaptation is the process of exaptation working its way towards a functioning method of dealing with a new biological or environmental need.

The dogs licking behavior in this video are an example of exaptation on a behavioral level. What other examples of exaptation can you see around you?

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About the author
Elizabeth Borneman
My name is Elizabeth Borneman and I am a freelance writer, reader, and coffee drinker. I live on a small island in Alaska, which gives me plenty of time to fish, hike, kayak, and be inspired by nature. I enjoy writing about the natural world and find lots of ways to flex my creative muscles on the beach, in the forest, or down at the local coffee shop.

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