Human intervention and species diversity

Professor Andrew Hendry’s Cutting Edge Lecture series talk, entitled “Humans, evolution, and the future of biodiversity” discussed the possibility of rapid evolution “saving” species from extinction due to rapidly changing environments. When we talk about human impacts on biodiversity, we are nearly always talking about species losses, both extinction and extirpation, due to habitat loss, over harvesting and the like. However, as Prof. Hendry pointed out, human activity may also lead to speciation and hybridization, which can effectively lead to an increase in local biodiversity. This is not a change we commonly associate with disturbed environments. I find these phenomena intriguing because they force us to think in a more sophisticated way about human impacts on biotic communities. They force us to ask questions such as, what is “biodiversity”? Is more always better? What is the “goal” in species conservation?

At the end of his talk, after describing various mechanisms by which human activity can influence diversity, Prof. Hendry pointed out that the important question is not whether there is evidence of rapid evolution in nature (there is), or even whether these phenotypic changes influence populations (they can), but whether these changes influence population persistence. To date, there is virtually no data, and no field data at all, to answer this question. Unfortunately, with climate change, it appears we are on a global trajectory that will provide us with the answers, whether we want them or not.

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