The common myna is a songbird, quite widespread in Israel. It can easily be identified by two distinct characteristics: The yellow spots around the eyes – standing out against its dark color, and a remarkable collection of sounds. In fact the myna is known to mimic sounds of animals and even people.
Another less prominent characteristic of the myna at first glance, is its aggression towards other birds, even bigger ones, as well as the damages it causes to local agriculture.
Nowadays you may find the myna around almost every Israeli home, but twenty years ago you wouldn’t be able to see it at all in Israel. Not very long ago, when Israelis spent time in sealed rooms during Gulf War I, there were zero mynas in Israel. The source of all thousands of Israeli mynas we see today is attributed to a single event in 1997, when a few birds escaped from a cage in a park in north Tel Aviv.
Why is this issue important? Because it demonstrates how a whole species can develop from very few individuals. Imagine, for example, an event in which a couple of birds similarly escape from a cage, where one of them is “infected” with a coincidental meaningless mutation – say – an albino bird that is brighter than usual. In less than twenty years you may have a whole country full of albino birds, never seen before. Voila! A new species.*
Such an event of producing a new species out of a single somewhat-different individual animal – is much more common than one may think. In his book ‘Almost Like A Whale’, Prof. Steve Jones mentions several such similar events that we know to genetically track. White tigers are known for almost 200 years. Nowadays there are no white tigers in the wild. All hundreds of living white tigers in captivity are descendants of a single individual with a mutant gene. All few remaining Przewalski’s horses are descendants of a dozen wild parents captured in Mongolia and a single female Mongolian pony (Chapter 1). A single fly developed resistance to a certain chemical. All billions of such resistant flies, from Pakistan through California, carry the same genetic mutation, with the same section of DNA around it (Chapter 5). The evolution of the HIV virus demonstrates how single mutations in single viruses became what we know today as AIDS (Introduction). Just note how we are afraid of a single mutation of the bird flu virus, which will make it easier for it to pass from one human to another. Probably this is also how some characteristics of the very first mynas had been formed.
Our perception of evolution can fool us. When we are told that species ‘A’ has evolved from species ‘B’, we might imagine a whole generation of ‘A’ miraculously turning into ‘B’. In practice we only need a single mutation and a bit of luck, in order to produce a new species – and those combinations were abundant during hundreds of millions of years of evolution. Our first dogs might have developed this way, out of individual wolves with less stress hormones, causing them to be more relaxed near humans. The first polar bears probably started their journey similarly. There are even assumptions that human speech started with a single mutation making it easier to talk.
Common religious preaching often makes use of this conflict between how we perceive the world and how it really is. The topic of evolution is just one example, and there are many more. What’s common to all of them is terribly simple: Facts are not necessarily what seems reasonable to us, but rather – and much more – what we have scientific evidence and conclusions about.
—— * In fact this is more a new “subspecies” or a new “strain”. A more exact definition of a ‘species’ mentions the inability of different species to mate and produce common offspring.