Rapid evolution shapes communities and ecosystems – but we need to improve the way we study these effects

Andrew P. Hendry

The evolution of Darwin’s finch beaks in Galapagos likely alters plant communities. Photo credit: Andrew P. Hendry
The evolution of Darwin’s finch beaks in Galapagos likely alters plant communities. Photo credit: Andrew P. Hendry

Charles Darwin argued that evolution was very slow – and this perspective persisted for more than a century. Now, however, we know that evolution is occurring all around us all the time, from fish evolving smaller body sizes in response to fishing pressure to plants evolving earlier flowering in response to climate change, and to bacteria, viruses, pests, weeds, and diseases evolving resistance to our chemical efforts to control them. All of this rapid evolutionary change should have important ecological effects. The typical ways to study these eco-evolutionary dynamics have revealed many exciting results that support these ideas. Now, however, we need major improvements if we are to improve our understanding of how eco-evolutionary dynamics influence biodiversity, ecosystem services, sustainability, and all of nature’s contributions to people. First, more studies need to be conducted in the real world, as opposed to controlled laboratory environments. Second, more studies need to focus on how rapid evolution of particular species influences the number of individuals in those species, which then influences communities and ecosystems. Third, more studies should focus on the effects of evolution in multiple species in a community, instead of only one focal species. Fourth, we need to develop better  methods for understanding how evolution promotes stability in communities and ecosystems, thus buffering the natural world against environmental change. Improvements such as these will take eco-evolutionary dynamics from the realm of “exciting ideas” into the realm of “practical relevance.”

Read the paper in full here.

This paper is part of the cross-journal Special Feature: Eco‐Evolutionary Dynamics Across Scales.

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