In the natural world, most organisms are limited by the environment as to where they can live. While this can be as drastic as a whale being limited to the ocean and humans being limited to the land, there are also more subtle limitations. That is, black and grizzly bears live in temperate environments, but polar bears are inhabit the arctic where it is MUCH colder. Due to the limitations imposed by the environment, black and grizzly bears cannot live further north.
Historically, most studies have focused on abiotic variables (i.e., non-living), like temperature and precipitation, as there is a clear role for the climate in determining where and when a species can live. However, biotic variables (i.e., living) like predation or competition can also play a role in defining the limits of a species range, though this has proven more difficult to test than abiotic factors, as many tests of biotic variables produce species-specific results. Charles Darwin proposed a framework in 1859 that the importance of biotic interactions would vary predictably with latitude and elevation. That is, at cooler, high-altitude locations abiotic interactions would be more important, while biotic interactions would be more important at warmer, low-altitude locations. Although a number of studies have attempted to test the three predictions (see Did You Know? ) derived from this framework, the results are contradictory and come from data testing different predictions using different data. Today’s authors sought to test all three predictions at once in order to resolve these contradictory results.
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.
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.
Local Adaptation to Biotic Interactions: A Meta-analysis across Latitudes(2020) Hargreaves et al., The American Naturalist,https://doi.org/10.1086/707323
Local adaptation is a process whereby individuals native to a given area are better-suited to live in that environment than foreign individuals, and those local individuals will out-compete foreign individuals. This adaptation to local conditions can range from a predator that is better at finding and catching prey, to a plant that is more efficient than another at taking nutrients from the soil, or to a host that has evolved defenses against a local parasite. Despite a wealth of literature and science that has been dedicated to the study of local adaptation, it is not clear what it is about the environment that commonly drives it.
Early studies of local adaptation measured abiotic (non-living) factors like temperature and the amount of light, but this ignores the fact that all environments include biotic factors like other species and any interactions with them. A small amount of studies have shown that biotic interactions (i.e. interactions with other species) can drive local adaptation, but there isn’t a consensus on how common of a pattern that is. Today’s authors used a meta-analysis of previous studies to test how these biotic interactions affect local adaptation. Read more
Recent responses to climate change reveal the drivers of species extinction and survival(2020) Román-Palacios & Wiens, PNAS, https:/doi/10.1073/pnas.1913007117
We tend to think of climate change as bad, and despite the fact that some organisms will benefit from it, many others won’t. A big part of why we consider it bad is that species are predicted to be lost at an alarming rate, with some estimates as high as 54% of all organisms going extinct. An issue with these predictions is that they tend to assume that species will track their preferred temperature and precipitation conditions, but this eliminates any ability of organisms to adapt to their new normal over time.
Today’s authors wanted to use data from previous studies to estimate how species adapt (or don’t) to climate change. Although previous work has shown that climate change is detrimental for many species, this study aimed to learn if it was due to changes in the overall temperature, changes in the extremes (i.e. how hot the hottest day is), or was it the sheer speed of change that did organisms in. Read more
When animals like these wolves travel in packs, spotting one individual means we’re more likely to spot another soon after. So how do we come up with a reliable population estimate in situations like these? (Image Credit: Eric Kilby, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped)
The thought of an ecologist may conjure the image of a scientist spending their time out in the field counting birds, looking for moss, studying mushrooms. Yet whilst field ecologists remain an integral part of modern ecology, the reality is that much of the discipline has come to rely on complex models. These are the processes which allow us to estimate figures like the 1 billion animals that have died in the recent Australian bushfires, or the potential spread of species further polewards as climate change warms our planet.
When we think of global warming, we tend to be a bit selfish and think of how it affects us in our daily lives, but the warming temperatures on our planet have the potential to affect the base of all of our food webs, plants (Image Credit: Matt Lavin, CC BY-SA 2.0).
The timing of life-history events (such as births, growing seasons, or reproductive period) is called “phenology”, and this aspect of an organism’s life is particularly sensitive to climate change. So much so that changes in the phenology of certain processes are often used as an indicator of climate change and how it affects a given organism.
We’ve talked about the effects of rising temperatures in animals here on Ecology for the Masses, but there is a lot of evidence in the scientific literature for climate change causing a multitude of different changes in the phenology of various plants. Not only does the direction of the change differ (some organisms experience delays in certain events, others have earlier starts), but the size, or magnitude, of the change also differs. The authors of today’s study wanted to examine these changes in the context of an invasive plant species and how it may be able to outcompete a native plant. Read more
Growth is a critical aspect of life for all organisms, and understanding what can and cannot affect it allows us to predict what effect climate change may have on organisms like these zebrafish (Image Credit: Lynn Ketchum, CC BY-SA 2.0).
In ecology, how organisms grow is relevant across all levels of life. Growing faster than others can be selected for as an evolutionary advantage, if being bigger earlier means that you have a competitive advantage over other members of your species.
Because growth is so critical to life, it is important to understand what may affect the ability of an organism to grow. The only way an organism can grow is by converting energy it acquires from food to its own body mass, but outside influences, like temperature, can affect how efficient an organism is at this energy conversion. The authors of today’s paper wanted to investigate if this efficiency and the cost of growth itself changed across a range of projected temperatures. Read more
Species like this red-crowned crane perform yearly migrations, but how do they weigh up the costs and benefits? (Image Credit: Alistair Rae, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped)
Where the wild birds go: explaining the differences in migratory destinations across terrestrial bird species (2018) Somveille, Manica & Rodrigues. Ecography, 42, p. 225-236.
Migratory birds make up a huge chunk of the world’s bird life, yet there are still a lot of gaps in our knowledge concerning why they migrate to the areas they do. There’s a variety of potential benefits to migration, from remaining within a comfortable temperature range or a preferred habitat, to gaining access to areas that have a surplus in resources, to escaping competition with resident species. However, migration also results in increased mortality due to the amount of energy it takes. This week’s study tried to analyse the drivers of migration, and what trade-offs were made between migration’s potential benefits and costs.
Miscommunication concerning ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef can be extremely harmful to their future. I recently encountered a frustrating example of such misinformation. (Image Credit: Workfortravel, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped)
Scientific communication is at the forefront of what we do here at Ecology for the Masses. We like to celebrate good examples of SciComm whenever we can. But every now and then it’s misused so overtly that you have to talk about it. So today I want to share a recent example of scientific communication that confused and worried me.
In this series, we’ve looked mostly at species that have been introduced at defined points in time. The Pink Salmon and the Red King Crab were introduced into Russian waters near Norway in the 50s, the Canada Goose was brought to Europe in the 30s, the Sitka Spruce in the late 1800s. But with the onset of climate change, warmer conditions in the Arctic and sub-Arctic mean that the doors will open for more gradual arrivals. So let’s look at how climate change will facilitate the arrival of these newcomers.