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Evolution’s oddities are focus of Darwin Day

February 7, 2012 By David Tenenbaum

The annual celebration of Charles Darwin’s birthday at the University of Wisconsin–Madison will highlight the evolutionary significance of strange life forms, including the octopus and enormous flowers.

Photo: Charles Darwin


 “Unnatural history: What bizarre biology can tell us about evolution” will explore the origins of some of life’s most unusual oddities during a weekend of fun and interactive events for the whole family.

The events — all free and open to the public — will start Thursday, Feb. 9, on the UW–Madison campus.

Darwin Day is organized by the James F. Crow Institute for the Study of Evolution. The institute’s namesake, noted geneticist and evolutionary biologist James F. Crow, died Jan. 4 at age 95 after a 63-year career on campus. Darwin Day honors Charles Darwin, whose insights into evolution are the organizing principle of biology.

The event kicks off with a movie night Thursday, Feb. 9, at 7 p.m. at Union South, 1308 W. Dayton St. After a series of evolution-themed short films, a lively audience discussion will be hosted by Charles Monroe-Kane of Wisconsin Public Television.

Janet Voight, associate curator of zoology at the Field Museum in Chicago, will give the keynote presentation, “Deep-sea octopuses, their origins and lives,” at 7 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 10, in the Forum at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, 330 N. Orchard St. A reception will begin at 6:30 p.m.

At 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 11, Edmund D. Brodie III, professor of biology at the University of Virginia, will give a presentation titled, “The witches’ brew of predator-prey arms races: eye of newt, fenny snakes and resistance to a deadly poison.”

The third plenary lecture, “The big, the bad and the ugly: parasitism and the origin of the world’s largest flowers,” will be given by Charles Davis, professor of organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard University, at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.

Brodie and Davis will both speak in the Forum at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery.

In addition to the exciting lectures, families and children are encouraged to participate in the Tree of Life scavenger hunt in the Institutes for Discovery’s Town Center on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. These interactive activities will explore the incredible diversity of life on earth and show how that diversity arose. 

Darwin Day also features a teacher workshop on Wednesday, Feb. 8, designed to help middle and high school teachers incorporate evolutionary biology into their science curriculum. Registration is required; visit here to register.

The James F. Crow Institute for the Study of Evolution is a cross-college institute supported by the College of Agricultural and Life Science, College of Letters and Science, School of Veterinary Medicine, School of Education and Laboratory of Genetics. Other sponsors are listed at the institute’s website at

For more information on Darwin Day and a detailed schedule, visit here.