Today’s “Planet Earth Report” –Warp-Speed Evolution is Transforming the Planet




Darwin thought evolution was too slow to change the environment on observable timescales. Ecologists are discovering that he was wrong. Rapid evolution can sometimes offset some of the detrimental effects of a warming climate and other known drivers of change; in other cases, it can worsen those effects. Even for the most common processes, such as changes in population size or food chains, ecologists must take evolution into consideration, researchers say. “Everybody realized rapid evolution was occurring everywhere,” says evolutionary ecologist Andrew Hendry of McGill University in Montreal, Canada.


It took Timothy Farkas less than a week to catch and relocate 1,500 stick insects in the Santa Ynez mountains in southern California, reports today's Nature. His main tool was an actual stick. “It feels kind of brutish,” says Farkas. “You just pick a stick up off the ground and beat the crap out of a bush.” That low-tech approach dislodged hordes of stick insects that the team easily plucked off the dirt.


On this hillside outside Santa Barbara, there are two kinds of bush that the stick insect (Timema cristinae) inhabits. The creature comes in two corresponding colorations: green and striped. Farkas and his fellow ecologists knew that the stick insects had evolved to blend in with their surroundings. But the researchers wanted to see whether they could turn this relationship around, so that an evolved trait — camouflage — would affect the organism’s ecology.

To find out, the team relocated mixtures of green and striped insects to different plants, so that some insects’ coloration clashed with their new home. Suddenly maladapted, these insects became targets for hungry birds, and that caused a domino effect1. Birds drawn to bushes with mismatched stick insects stuck around to eat other residents, such as caterpillars and beetles, stripping some plants clean. “That this evolutionary force can cause local extinction is striking,” says Farkas, an ecologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. “It affects the entire community.” All this happened because of an out-of-place evolutionary trait.

Ecologists have generally ignored evolution when studying their systems; they thought it was impossible to test whether such a slow process could change ecosystems on observable timescales. But they have come to realize that evolution can happen more quickly than they assumed, and a wave of studies has capitalized on this idea to observe evolution and ecology in unison.

Such eco-evolutionary dynamics could be important for understanding how new populations emerge, or for predicting when one might go extinct. Experiments suggest that evolutionary changes alter some ecosystems just as much as shifts in more-conventional ecological elements, such as the amount of light reaching a habitat. “Eco-evolutionary dynamics is the dragon lots of people are chasing right now,” says Troy Simon, an ecologist at the University of Georgia in Athens.

It all goes back to Charles Darwin’s finches. When the naturalist visited Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands in 1835, he documented some variation in the beaks of finches living on different islands and eating different foods. Years after the voyage, he hinted in his Journal of Researches that this variation suggested a tight relationship between the birds’ ecology and their evolution.

Darwin never imagined seeing this in action, because he thought that evolution occurs only at the “long lapse of ages”. But by the late 1990s, ecologists had started to realize that evolution could be observed within a few generations of a given species — a timescale that they could work with.

Organisms that live and die quickly provided some of the early data demonstrating how evolution influences ecology. A key study2 published in 2003 focused on algae and rotifers, microscopic predators that feed on algae; both species can tick through up to 20 generations in the course of a couple of weeks. The study mixed the organisms together in tanks and showed that when algae evolve rapidly, they throw off normal predator–prey population dynamics.

Usually, the two species play out a cycle between ‘boom’ and ‘bust’. The algal population grows; the rotifers then gobble them up and their own population explodes. When the predators have depleted the algae, their numbers crash. The algae then rebound and the pattern starts again. But when the researchers introduced different algal varieties — seeding some genetic diversity — the algae began to evolve rapidly and the cycle changed completely. The algal population remained elevated for longer, and the rotifers’ own boom was abnormally delayed because the new algae were more resistant to predation.

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