Extreme Climate Events: Is There A Silver Lining?

Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, Image Cropped

The silver lining of extreme events (2018) Coleman & Wernberg, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2020.08.013

The Crux

We here at Ecology for the Masses recognize the harm of climate change and the danger that it poses to countless species the world over. Part of climate change involves extreme climate events such as floods, droughts, unusual cold spells, or cyclones, all of which can be devastating to natural systems. By and large these events are seen as negative, and rightfully so! But today’s paper offers another perspective on extreme climate events: their potential for driving evolution towards increased resilience.

Now, I’m not saying that these extreme climate events are good. I dislike them just as much as the next person with a shred of concern about the natural world. That being said, the authors raise some interesting points about the evidence that exists for these events being a positive force for evolution and adaptation. As such, I want to touch on a few of those points, address some issues with this ‘silver lining’, and talk about what it means going forward.

What Evidence Exists

Extreme climate events result in massive losses of organic life, local extinctions, and can drive range shifts. This is quite costly from not only an ecological point of view, but also a social and and an economic one. Due to these costs, a significant amount of effort and money has been dedicated to working on issues associated with these events. Interestingly enough, despite the negative connotations and costs associated with extreme climate events, there is emerging empirical evidence for a “benefit” in that they can cause non-random mortality (see Did You Know?), driving rapid evolution and adaptation.

Scientific theory has predicted that when extreme climate events occur in such a way that they select against weak individuals, but aren’t so extreme that “tougher” individuals cannot live, then these more tolerant and stronger individuals can persist in populations/areas undergoing extreme events. If these tougher individuals can pass on their genes, then a population can rapidly adapt to these extreme conditions. For example, a study showed that a severe cold snap selected for cold tolerance in green anoles (Anolis carolinensis), and similar work has shown that heatwaves selected for thermal tolerance in kelp. While plenty of the lizards/kelp didn’t have the proper traits to survive these extreme temperatures, some of them did. And because they passed on those genes to the next generation, the population is better-suited to survive future extreme temperatures.

Did You Know: Non-Random Mortality

Evolution is a fact of life, and the driving force behind the persistence of life on our planet. However, what you may not know is how evolution actually results in changes in a population/species over time. Individual organisms don’t evolve, species do. So how does that work? Well, it all has to do with how often certain individuals pass on their genes. “Survival of the fittest” refers to the biological concept of “fitness”, which is how good a given organism is at passing on its genes. So in order to be the most fit, you have to pass on the most genetic material, relative to other members of the population. This is where non-random mortality comes into play. Non-random mortality means that there is a pattern behind the death rates. Put into other words, the individuals that survived had something that the ones that died did not. This is how evolution works slowly over time, non-random mortality means that individuals with a given trait tend to die less often than those that don’t have that trait, which means that that trait gets passed on more often than others. Eventually, that trait will become the new normal for that population/species, and evolution has occurred.

What This Means

The potential for extreme events to select for resilience and drive rapid adaptation means that groups dedicated to conservation and preservation of species and ecosystems may be able to proactively anticipate future events. The authors highlight the difficulty inherent in studying non-model organisms for traits/genes that may promote persistence to future climate events, as it involves a LOT of background research to understand the mechanisms behind such persistence. However, to use the anoles from earlier as an example, there are better ways. If one was to go to an area that recently suffered a cold snap like those anoles did and collect the survivors, chances are that most of those survivors have the cold-tolerance trait. By selectively breeding/relocating those survivors conservation workers could prevent future die-offs due to cold snaps.

Problems With These Approaches

This all sounds great, right? No issue? Well, not quite. Just because a given trait may promote persistence to one stressor (the environment) does not mean that it promotes persistence to all others (like disease). Another issue with this silver-lining of adaptation and rapid evolution is the bottleneck effect: extreme events cause mass die-offs. Though the survivors may have a trait that allows them to persist in extreme events, the reduced population size of the survivors may result in such a marked decrease in genetic diversity that the population fails eventually anyway due to the issues associated with inbreeding.

The cheetah is an example of an organism that underwent a population bottleneck, and as such now suffers from very low levels of genetic diversity (Image credit: Ken Blum, CC BY-SA 3.0)

So What?

Extreme climate events are an unfortunate reality, and they are only predicted to get worse and become more frequent. Today’s paper offers a pleasant silver lining to that very grim reality, as it highlights the potential for these events to drive evolution and selection to extreme conditions. It may not be as good as not having these events in the first place, but the authors bring up an important point by drawing attention to the evidence that exists for populations adapting to these extreme conditions, many of which seem to be driven by human-induced climate change. I’ve recently re-read Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, and I can’t help but think of a quote from the character Dr. Ian Malcolm’s as I was reading this paper: “The planet has survived everything, in its time. It will certainly survive us”.

Adam Hasik is an evolutionary ecologist interested in the ecological and evolutionary dynamics of host-parasite interactions. You can read more about his research and his work for Ecology for the Masses here, see his personal website here, or follow him on Twitter here.

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