Humans reshaping evolutionary history of species around the globe: paper

University of British Columbia researcher had the paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society

Swallows are evolving smaller, more manoeuvrable wings to help them dodge buildings and vehicles.

Some fish are growing mouths that are smaller and harder to hook.

Large animals from caribou to tuna are disappearing.

Meanwhile, it’s boom time for anything not too fussy about where it lives or what it eats.

“It’s a reshaping of the tree of life,” said Sarah Otto, a University of British Columbia researcher, whose paper was published Wednesday by the London-based Proceedings of the Royal Society.

Otto, a much-awarded and highly regarded theoretical biologist, says the activities and presence of human beings have become one of the largest drivers of evolutionary change everywhere on the planet.

RELATED: Sounding the climate change alarm bell

“Human impacts on the world are not just local,” she said. ”They are changing the course of evolutionary history for all species on the planet, and that’s a remarkable concept to ponder.”

Earth scientists have long discussed the idea of the Anthropocene — a period of Earth’s history defined by geological markers of human impact. Otto, after reviewing dozens of research papers, concludes the planet’s biology is becoming similarly marked as plants and animals respond to human pressure.

Her paper is replete with examples from bird species slowly forgetting to migrate to mosquito breeds adapted specifically to underground subway tunnels.

Backyard bird feeders are behind changes in the beak shape and strength of house finches. Different mammals are becoming nocturnal as a way to avoid human conflict. Introduced species change the ground rules for native plants and animals.

It’s a mistake to think evolution requires millennia, said Otto.

“Evolution happens really fast if the selection regimes are strong. We can see sometimes in plant populations evolutionary change in the course of years.”

If the changes come too fast for evolution to keep up, there’s always extinction.

Rates of species loss are now estimated to be 1,000 times higher than they were before human domination. More than one in five of all plant and animal species are considered at risk.

Extinctions have always happened. But Otto said they’re happening at such a pace and in response to such similar pressures that they are reducing the ability of evolution to respond to change.

“We’re losing the ability for evolution to bounce back.”

Forcing species into a human-formed box reduces variability, leaving evolution less to work with in response to future changes. And wiping species out removes them forever.

“If we’re eliminating the large-bodied mammals, even if humans went extinct on the planet, we’re not going to see an immediate return of ecosystems to have the right balance of small, medium and large species,” Otto said.

“We’re cutting off options. We’re cutting off options both within species by eliminating variability, and we’re also cutting off options at the tree of life level by cutting off species.”

Species that are doing well are generalists — crows, coyotes, dandelions.

RELATED: Ignoring climate change poses potential catastrophe for B.C.

“The ones that can both tolerate and thrive in human-altered environments,” said Otto. “The pigeons and the rats.”

The biggest single human-caused evolutionary pressure, Otto said, is climate change.

“The No. 1 thing we have to do is tackle climate change. If we don’t do that, we’re going to lose a lot more species.”

The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Sylvan Lake Wranglers. File Photo
Sylvan Lake Wranglers ready for shorten hockey season

The HJHL will have a 20 game season, playing four games in a cohort and then going dark for 14 days

Decorate your vehicle for display at the second annual Trunk or Treat on Oct. 31 . (Blakc Press File Photo)
Sylvan Lake church to host a socially distanced Trunk or Treat on Halloween

Goblins and ghouls can go around to vehicles for their tricks or treats at the Alliance Church

Front-line hospital workers have walked off the job at the Rimbey Hospital, and across the province. Photo Submitted
Front-line health care workers on strike across the province, including Rimbey Hospital

The strike is due to cut of 11,000 health care jobs in the province, according to AUPE

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, confirmed more than 1,000 cases over the weekend Monday afternoon. File photo
COVID-19: Central zone active cases up Monday

‘We’ve now crossed the tipping point,’ says Hinshaw

Cases in Ponoka (East Ponoka County) as of Oct. 27. (alberta.ca)
Diagnosed cases of COVID-19 at three Ponoka businesses

Town ‘strongly encouraging’ residents to wear non-medical masks in public

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau provides an update on the COVID pandemic during a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Trudeau says pandemic ‘really sucks,’ and that Christmas gatherings are up in the air

The prime minister encouraged residents to continue to follow the advice of local health authorities

The Williams Lake Indian Band is stipulating no-go zones for mushroom picking in areas burned by last summer’s wildfires. 100 Mile Free Press photo
Who controls mushroom harvesting on Indigenous lands?

‘We don’t necessarily know where the mushrooms grow, how old the stands need to be, those types of things.’

Canadian and American flags fly near the Ambassador Bridge at the Canada/USA border crossing in Windsor, Ont. on Saturday, March 21, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Rob Gurdebeke
U.S. election results one factor that could impact immigration to Canada next year

The survey polled 1,523 Canadians between Oct. 23 and Oct. 25

Alberta’s provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa, Monday July 6, 2020. The Alberta government is hoping to get more Albertans employed by moving to limit the number and type of temporary foreign workers it allows into the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Alberta to limit temporary foreign worker program to save jobs for Albertans

Temporary foreign workers already in the province won’t be affected

(Emily Jaycox/Bashaw Star)
Wreath laying ceremony held in Manfred, Alta.

Ceremony marks 64th anniversary of Hungarian revolution, honours settlers

Royal Alexandra Hospital front-line workers walk a picket line after walking off the job in a wildcat strike in Edmonton, on Monday, October 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta labour board orders health-care staff who walked off the job to go back to work

Finance Minister Travis Toews said in a news release that he was pleased with the labour board’s decision

Wetaskiwin Hospital staff join AUPE walk outs across the province Monday Oct. 26, 2020. Shaela Dansereau/ The Pipestone Flyer.
City of Wetaskiwin health-care workers strike in protest of province-wide cuts

Wetaskiwin Hospital staff join other front line hospital workers across the province in walk-outs.

Most Read