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

‘Manny’s Motel’ badly damaged by fire Jan. 15

Police say 40 Ave. closed due to fire, use alternate route

From courthouse to council’s house

Old courthouse had long history before becoming City Hall

Revenue Canada, RCMP don’t accept Bitcoin: police

RCMP issue Bitcoin warning posters

Writer says Alberta highway system falling apart

Highways in ‘deplorable’ condition: writer

County council denies request for parking lot

Buck Lake groups are welcome to raise funds and return to council

Canada to bolster screening of central China passengers for virus at 3 airports

Additional measures will include messaging on arrivals screens in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver

RCMP Major Crimes Unit lays charges in Stettler death

Nicholas Climb Johnson, 32, of Stettler is charged with second degree murder in the death of his father

Metis nations ask Ottawa to negotiate directly with them, not national body

Three provincial Metis nations will work through the national council until after the federal government releases its 2020 budget

Canada to give $25,000 to families of each Canadian who died in Iran plane crash

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also made it clear that Canada still expects Iran to compensate victims

Oil and gas industry applauds top court’s dismissal of B.C.’s Trans Mountain case

The high court’s ruling Thursday removes one of the remaining obstacles for the project

Sylvan Lake RCMP seek assistance in locating missing male

Mark Crier, 17, was last seen in Sylvan Lake on Jan. 13

UPDATE: Supreme Court dismisses B.C.’s appeal in Trans Mountain pipeline case

Judges decide whether B.C.’s power to protect environment can include impeding a federal project

Alberta says universities over-budget; need to freeze travel, hiring, hosting

Demetrios Nicolaides says spending is not meeting expectations

Over 16,000 people nabbed by RCMP between border crossings in 2019

In 2019, 63,830 claims were filed, up from 55,040 in 2018

Most Read