Evolution can happen 4 times faster than we thought

(ORDO NEWS) — New research shows that Darwinian evolution may be four times faster than previously thought, based on an analysis of genetic variation.

The more genetic differences a species has, the faster evolution occurs, as some traits die off, while stronger ones become fixed.

The team that did the latest study calls it the “fuel of evolution.” They studied data from 19 different groups of wild animals around the world.

Data analysis has shown that there is more of this raw material for evolution than previously thought, and as a result, we may have to adjust our expectations about the rate of animal evolution – a pressing issue in our age of climate change.

“This method gives us the ability to measure the potential rate of current evolution in response to natural selection for all traits in a population,” says evolutionary ecologist Timothy Bonnet of the Australian National University.

“This is something we weren’t able to do with previous methods, so being able to see such a significant potential change came as a surprise to the team.”

Wildlife studied included superb fairy terns (Malurus cyaneus) in Australia, spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) in Tanzania, song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) in Canada, and red deer (Cervus elaphus) in Scotland. This is the first time that the rate of evolution has been estimated on such a large scale.

The average duration of each field study was an impressive 30 years, with all the details of birth, death, mating and offspring being recorded.

The shortest study lasted 11 years, and the longest – as much as 63 years. This gave the researchers a total of 2.6 million hours of field data to combine with genetic information about each animal.

It took three years, but in the end the team determined how much the species had changed under the influence of genetics and natural selection.

Although Charles Darwin initially considered evolution to be a very slow process, previous research has already shown that evolution can occur in some species in just a few years.

“A common example of rapid evolution is the pepper moth, which was predominantly white before the industrial revolution in the UK,” says Bonnet.

“When environmental pollution left black soot on trees and buildings, black moths gained a survival advantage because it was harder for birds to spot them.”

“Because the color of the moth determined the likelihood of survival and was due to genetic differences, the populations of England quickly became dominated by black moths.”

Since there is no baseline to work on – this is the first study of its kind – the researchers emphasize that there is not yet sufficient evidence that species are evolving faster than in the past. What is clear is that there is more of this “fuel of evolution” than we thought.

As the world and its wildlife suffer from the ongoing effects of climate change, knowing how quickly animals can adapt will be helpful in modeling which species can and cannot survive.

There is concern that as global climate change accelerates, species will not be able to adapt in time. Even more complex and long-term studies will be needed to determine exactly how fast evolution is taking place.

“This study showed us that evolution cannot be discounted as a process that allows species to persist in response to environmental changes,” says Bonnet.

“What we can say is that evolution is a much more significant factor than we previously thought in adapting populations to current environmental changes.”

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