The race to evolve: Can biodiversity keep pace with the changing environment?

The race to evolve

Can biodiversity keep pace with the changing environment?

The race to evolve

Can biodiversity keep pace with the changing environment?

By Emily Jerome

A recent study dived into the question, can biodiversity evolve fast enough to survive our changing environment? 

Life on earth has shown incredible resilience for over 3.5 billion years through adapting and evolving to a changing planet. But, human-driven environmental change has thrown a curveball that has led researchers to question, can biodiversity evolve fast enough to survive?  A recent study by Queen’s University discovered that adaptive evolution has limits.

Walrus by water and glacier
Photo by webguzs from Getty Images/Canva.

Evolution and natural selection

But first, let’s briefly unpack the fascinating world of evolution. Chances are you’ve probably heard of the English naturalist, Charles Darwin. In the 1800s, Darwin, and his lesser-known contemporary, Alfred Russel Wallace proposed that a phenomenon known as natural selection leads to evolution. In the process of natural selection, individuals with the most advantageous physical features are more likely to survive, reproduce and pass along these traits to the next generation. Over long periods, this leads to evolution. For example, natural selection led to the evolution of long giraffe necks to eat leaves from tall trees, camouflaged moth wings to hide from predators, and chisel-shaped woodpecker beaks to drill into wood and find insects to eat.

Giraffes standing in savannah
Photo by Syda Productions from Canva.

The research findings

Researchers at Queen’s University reconstructed the evolution of an invasive species known as purple loosestrife over a 150-year period. As it spread across Canada and the United States, natural selection favoured plants that flowered earlier in the year and purple loosestrife was able to evolve in response to shorter growing seasons. After about a century, however, adaptive evolution stalled.

The evolutionary constraints identified in the study suggest that species are limited in their ability to adapt to a changing environment over a long period of time. Think about running a marathon or working long hours. You may start out bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but eventually, you will start to lose steam and slow down. As it turns out, even evolution is susceptible to burning out.

Purple flowers in green field
Purple loosestrife. Photo by Jason_Ray_Photography from Getty Images/Canva.

Further research on historical evolutionary limits could open a window to understanding how species may respond to the climate crisis in the future. This is an important reason to protect and preserve natural history collections, including the collection used in this study. Natural history collections are critical tools to understand historical trends and inform future biodiversity management and conservation.

Although evolution is certainly a powerful mechanism for adapting to a changing environment, humans need to step up to the plate and tackle the twin challenges of biodiversity loss and the climate crisis.

How can you help?

1. Learn more about nature-based solutions for the climate crisis and biodiversity loss in our blog, including kelp forests in coastal ecosystems.  

2. Listen to our podcast episode with Dr. Aerin Jacobs and learn about how protected areas can help people and the planet.

3. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to continue learning about biodiversity and solutions to biodiversity loss.

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