Animals can evolve faster than previously thought

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A higher genetic contribution to individual survival and reproductive differences means that animal species can adapt more quickly. This evolutionary ‘fuel’ may exist in wild animal populations at a rate two to four times higher than previously thought, the study suggests, which could potentially improve species’ chances of survival .

The studypublished in the journal Science, was led out of the Australian National University by Dr Timothée Bonnet. Dr Anna Santure, from the University of Auckland-Waipapa Taumata Rau, was among the co-authors.

New statistical methods were applied to data for 19 wildlife populations around the world, including fairy tales in Australia, spotted hyenas in Tanzania, song sparrows in Canada and red deer in Scotland. The data highlighted the contribution of genes in relation to the environment in the ability of species to survive and reproduce.

The research showed that the majority of the 19 wild animal populations were able to adapt quickly.

“Hihi are one of the most unlucky species, with a lower adaptive capacity,” says Santure. “However, this research suggests that many species can adapt quickly, provided they are not totally overwhelmed by habitat loss and climate change.”

“For hihi, the analysis is consistent with previous work we have done suggesting low adaptive capacity, but they can be protected from extinction by conservation management actions such as food provisioning and control parasites and predators.

The individual studies contributing to the research had averaged nearly 30 years each, generating a remarkable resource of detailed records of wildlife populations.

For hihi, two datasets, from populations on Tiritiri Matangi Island and the Zealandia Sanctuary, represented 31 years and 90,000 hours of fieldwork by conservation staff, volunteers and dedicated students. Populations have been intensively studied since their recovery, with breeding and survival data available for each bird.

Evolution can happen extremely slowly, but changes can also occur in just a few years and are now more easily detected by scientists thanks to advances in genetics and statistics.

Species introduced to Aotearoa in New Zealand have provided examples of rapid adaptation to conditions very different from those in their native habitats. For example, weasels are generally larger than the European populations from which they originate.

In addition, “artificial” selection (directed by humans) is causing dramatic and rapid changes in many species of domestic and farm animals.

– This press release was originally published on the University of Auckland website

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