Can evolution rescue species from rapid climate change?

Can evolution rescue species from rapid climate change? This was the question posed by Dr. Andrew Hendry, at the latest Cutting Edge Lecture Series, entitled Humans, Evolution and the Future of Biodiversity. While the seminar concluded without providing a definitive answer, it undeniably challenged traditional approaches to biodiversity conservation.

Dr. Hendry presented theoretical models, which, under scenarios of varying degrees environmental change, predict that a population will decline; however in some instances the population may recover and continue to grow, having evolved tolerances to the new environment. A similar response was observed in the laboratory for a species of yeast. Nevertheless, there have been no observations of such a phenomenon occurring in a natural population. Limitations in knowledge and logistics impede the implementation of such field experiments. However, Dr. Henry seems to think there is no reason that wild populations could not respond rapidly to environmental change, and if so, they could adapt to contemporary climate change by evolving.

Acceptance of this view of evolution as rapid, rather than a slow process operating over millennia, has implications for biodiversity conservation. Conservation is traditionally thought of as maintaining nature in a static state, by setting aside land in perpetuity or by protecting a specific habitat for a particular species of interest. Contemporary evolution forces conservation practitioners to embrace change and revise their objectives. In this light, conservation biologists must incorporate into conservation strategies, evolutionary concepts that were once overlooked. This involves understanding and managing the genetic variation of populations, ensuring the conservation of evolutionary processes and taking into consideration the biological interactions of mutualistic partners who are likely to co-evolve. Determining the extinction risk of a species due to rapid climate change therefore includes an understanding of the future patterns of suitable habitat patches for a particular species as well as the potential for that species to rapidly evolve to the changing environment. Within these contexts, the conservation of biodiversity becomes a tremendously complex, but nevertheless, imperative undertaking.

Comments are closed.