Humans reshaping evolutionary history of species around the globe: paper

University of British Columbia researcher had the paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society

Swallows are evolving smaller, more manoeuvrable wings to help them dodge buildings and vehicles.

Some fish are growing mouths that are smaller and harder to hook.

Large animals from caribou to tuna are disappearing.

Meanwhile, it’s boom time for anything not too fussy about where it lives or what it eats.

“It’s a reshaping of the tree of life,” said Sarah Otto, a University of British Columbia researcher, whose paper was published Wednesday by the London-based Proceedings of the Royal Society.

Otto, a much-awarded and highly regarded theoretical biologist, says the activities and presence of human beings have become one of the largest drivers of evolutionary change everywhere on the planet.

RELATED: Sounding the climate change alarm bell

“Human impacts on the world are not just local,” she said. ”They are changing the course of evolutionary history for all species on the planet, and that’s a remarkable concept to ponder.”

Earth scientists have long discussed the idea of the Anthropocene — a period of Earth’s history defined by geological markers of human impact. Otto, after reviewing dozens of research papers, concludes the planet’s biology is becoming similarly marked as plants and animals respond to human pressure.

Her paper is replete with examples from bird species slowly forgetting to migrate to mosquito breeds adapted specifically to underground subway tunnels.

Backyard bird feeders are behind changes in the beak shape and strength of house finches. Different mammals are becoming nocturnal as a way to avoid human conflict. Introduced species change the ground rules for native plants and animals.

It’s a mistake to think evolution requires millennia, said Otto.

“Evolution happens really fast if the selection regimes are strong. We can see sometimes in plant populations evolutionary change in the course of years.”

If the changes come too fast for evolution to keep up, there’s always extinction.

Rates of species loss are now estimated to be 1,000 times higher than they were before human domination. More than one in five of all plant and animal species are considered at risk.

Extinctions have always happened. But Otto said they’re happening at such a pace and in response to such similar pressures that they are reducing the ability of evolution to respond to change.

“We’re losing the ability for evolution to bounce back.”

Forcing species into a human-formed box reduces variability, leaving evolution less to work with in response to future changes. And wiping species out removes them forever.

“If we’re eliminating the large-bodied mammals, even if humans went extinct on the planet, we’re not going to see an immediate return of ecosystems to have the right balance of small, medium and large species,” Otto said.

“We’re cutting off options. We’re cutting off options both within species by eliminating variability, and we’re also cutting off options at the tree of life level by cutting off species.”

Species that are doing well are generalists — crows, coyotes, dandelions.

RELATED: Ignoring climate change poses potential catastrophe for B.C.

“The ones that can both tolerate and thrive in human-altered environments,” said Otto. “The pigeons and the rats.”

The biggest single human-caused evolutionary pressure, Otto said, is climate change.

“The No. 1 thing we have to do is tackle climate change. If we don’t do that, we’re going to lose a lot more species.”

The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Paintearth Community Adult Learning boasts another successful year

The 2019/2020 school year looks to bring back many popular programs and some new ones

Red Deer man arrested in connection with Leduc armed robbery

Leduc RCMP asking for public assistance after armed robbery – UPDATE

Community tradition

Castor Community Hall played host to the annual Bridge Tournament on May 4th

Alberta RCMP shares tips for motorcycle safety month

Showing off does not pay off – but driving defensively does

Castor looking into animal control bylaws and improving training for staff

The training is being undertaken by the Town employees to minimize public, staff, and animal risk

New airline regulations bring compensation for tarmac delays, over-bookings

Some of the new regulations will roll out in July, while others are expected for December.

Scheer says it would take Conservatives five years to balance budget

Scheeraccused the Liberal government of spending $79.5 billion of previously unbudgeted funds

Theresa May to quit as party leader June 7, sparking race for new PM

The new Conservative leader will become prime minister without the need for a general election

CMHC defends mortgage stress test changes amid calls for loosening rules

Uninsured borrowers must now show they could service their mortgage if rates rose two per cent

School bus crash in Edmonton sends 12 to hospital, 2 with broken bones

Alberta Health Services said there were no life-threatening injuries

Crews fight fire with fire to keep blaze from northern Alberta town

The wildfire now covers some 920 square kilometres

Supreme Court of Canada won’t hear Alberta murder appeals

Sheena Cuthill and her husband Timothy Rempel were found guilty three years ago of killing Ryan Lane

Pipeline protester chimes in on Justin Trudeau’s B.C. fundraising speech

The government purchased the Trans Mountain pipeline and expansion project for $4.5 billion

Canada stripping citizenship from Chinese man over alleged marriage fraud

The move comes amid severely strained relations between Ottawa and Beijing

Most Read