Show this New Study to Your Anti-Science Auntie, and Stand Back. Species EVOLVE in response to CLIMATE CHANGE

July 13, 2012


Climate change has altered the behaviour and interactions of many plants and animals, including when fish migrate and plants flower. But evidence has been lacking that such shifts have a genetic basis.

Organisms often deal with environmental pressures by altering traits through a process known as phenotypic plasticity, which does not require genetic changes. But many organisms will need to evolve genetic adaptations to climate change to survive, and seasonal traits such as the timing of migration are those most likely to evolve as they are genetically heritable.

Ryan Kovach, a population ecologist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, and his colleagues have now investigated the genetic basis of shifts towards earlier migration times in spawning pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha) in Auke Creek, a stream near Jueau, Alaska1. The team found that in 2010, the fish swam upstream to spawn nearly two weeks earlier than they did 40 years ago, a trend also seen in other salmon populations. Over the same period, the average temperature of the water rose by more than one degree. Now, Kovach has linked the change in behaviour to a genetic change.

“It has been extremely difficult to determine whether any of the multitudes of observed phenological changes in nature are due to rapid microevolution within a population,” says Kovach. “This study is the first empirical example using genetic data to confirm this theory, and so addresses a key research gap that has been acting as a thorn in the side of the field.”

The researchers used a genetic marker that had been bred into late-migrating fish in the 1980s to differentiate late-migrating fish from early-migrating fish. The marker was on the gene MDH B1,2, which is not affected by natural selection. They then looked at 32 years of genetic data begining in the 1970’s taken from 17 generations of the fish. In addtion, between 5 and 30 fish were sampled every day in the odd years from 1983 to 1993, and in 2001 and 2011.

They found that by 2011, the number of late-migrating fish had dropped by at least 20%, to make up just 10% of the population. They also found a three-fold decrease in the frequency of the genetic marker. They found no changes in the frequencies of many other genes used as controls. The findings are published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B1.

“We show that there has been a genetic shift towards earlier migration timing through what appears to be natural selection against the late-migrating individuals in the population,” Kovach says.


11 Responses to “Show this New Study to Your Anti-Science Auntie, and Stand Back. Species EVOLVE in response to CLIMATE CHANGE”

  1. Thanks for the video clip Peter. I thought I had finished facepalming for the day after hearing that in Queensland, Australia, the political party in government has decided to remove the “climate change propaganda” from the school curriculum. Clearly, I was wrong.

  2. omnologos Says:

    “Species EVOLVE in response to CLIMATE CHANGE”…I think that deserves more of a facepalm than bone-headed attacks against evolution.

    Wonder when Nature will publish next step in the Doh series…”climate change not much of a threat for the planet as the environment will adapt to new conditions as it has done for the last 4.5 billion years”…

    • otter17 Says:

      The formation of the Earth was 4.5 billion years ago. Life is estimated to have begun around 4 billion years ago.

      Species can evolve to climate changes when those changes are at a rate that is slow enough for evolution to effectively keep pace. Considering the current change to the carbon cycle is orders of magnitude faster than many of the fastest natural changes in Earth’s history, it is prudent to take notice.

      I don’t think you have much latitude in the slightest to even sarcastically recommend what Nature publishes in its “Doh Series”.

      • omnologos Says:

        otter17 – I can’t imagine how you’re going to show that species CAN evolve WHEN the rate of change is small, and not when it is “large”, as if it was the planetary conditions that were adapting to life rather than the other way around. Also your claim of detailed knowledge of all rates of changes in all of Earth’s history is astonishing to say the least.

        Seems like I believe in evolution more than you do. And btw I wasn’t being sarcastic. “Facepalms” are reserved in this case to situations where a truism is scientifically rediscovered. Such as “species evolve in response to environmental changes”. Or “species have been able to evolve in response to all environmental changes that have ever happened in the entire history of the planet”.

        One can argue that climate change might endanger people (*). But endangerment of the whole planet (ie of life itself)? Please!

        (*) guess what…the most vulnerable people are the most at risk of climate change. That’s another “scientific” truism. Doh doh doh and more doh.

        ps Ralph Cicerone just up on BBC Radio’s flagship programme saying climate change catastrophism is useless or worse. I’ll post a link when I’ve got one.

        • jasonpettitt Says:

          Picking and choosing “scientific” truisms since 1980.

        • otter17 Says:

          I was not at all referring to planetary conditions adapting to life rather than the other way around.

          It is likely you do not believe in evolution any more than I do. The rate of evolution for fast reproductive cycle organisms is indeed quite fast (bacteria). Nevertheless, if you think macro organisms can adapt to a different planetary paradigm on the order of a few centures, then that is off base.

          The science has rough estimates of carbon cycle changes going back quite far, and some are believed to correspond with extinction events, such as the Permian and Paleocen-Eocene Thermal Maximum. Furthermore, the glacial cycles were quite substantial changes, and today’s carbon cycle changes outpace that by orders of magnitude rate.

          I don’t think anybody has ever claimed that even a fast rate of climate change can threaten all life. Even the Permian mass extinction was survivable, only that it took out a substantial amount of life in the fossil record.

          There is always uncertainty in science. Still, if you find it to be an acceptable risk to keep on doing nothing proactive to stop what is probably among one of the fastest carbon cycle changes (and climate change) in Earth’s history, don’t be surprised if you get called out on it consistently.

    • Adaptation through extinction? Clever omnologos.

  3. Bryan Fischer is a prime example of a very high IQ uncontrollably addicted to inductive reasoning.

  4. […] Nature: Climate change has altered the behaviour and interactions of many plants and animals, including when fish migrate and plants flower. But evidence has been lacking that such shifts have a ge…  […]

  5. Martin Lack Says:

    Very interesting Peter, thanks for that.

    Whilst I have never been a Young Earth Creationist (YEC), I admit to holding onto elements of Intelligent Design thinking for a very long time… Indeed my initial response to this article included things like ‘phenotypic plasticity’ is not evolution and neither is ‘the timing of migration’.

    However, whilst I still think anyone is very unlikely to ever witness the evolution of a new species (i.e. incapable or reproducing with its progenitor), I have to accept the core finding of this research as being that genetic changes appear linked to behavioural ones.

    Despite all this, I am still inclined to think that, whilst Robert Jastrow was an ideologically-blinded climate change denier, what he said about Cosmology could just as easily be applied to all attempts to shed light on the evolution of Life on Earth: “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

    As evidence to back-up this assertion, please note the words of Thomas Aquinas in 1273 A.D.:
    “Holy Scripture can be explained in a multiplicity of senses, [and] one should adhere to a particular explanation only in such measure as to be ready to abandon it if it be proved with certainty to be false, lest Holy Scripture be exposed to the ridicule of unbelievers, and obstacles be placed to their believing…”

    The wisdom of this guidance and likely consequences of failure to adhere to it has indeed been validated by the invention of YEC thinking within the last 100 years; an anti scientific and anti-intellectual tradition now being continued by climate change deniers…

  6. neilrieck Says:

    You can almost always tell when someone has no clue about science. First off, they will continually confuse the words “theory, fact, and hypothesis” like this dope just did. Secondly it is usually a disaster to apply principles of physics to biology without a whole lot of explanation. For example, I remember a old adage from one of my profs which went like this: “biological systems are islands of negative entropy”. What does this mean? Entropy (from the second law of thermodynamics) is a measure of disorder which increases in proportion to a decrease in energy. Therefore negative entropy is related to acquiring energy (eating) to increase order, which biological systems do quite well. When you look at the amount of energy we take in versus the amount of work we do, quite a bit appears to have gone missing. That is until you realize how much energy is required to copy DNA during cell division. Or how much energy is required to copy DNA to RNA which is happening all the time. Or how much energy is required to run enzyme-based error detection and error correction routines on DNA in all our cells (much more so in our gametes). While it is true that energy can never be created or destroyed, energy can be used to create order and that is why humans exist now but didn’t for the past 13 billion years. It took a long time for nature to work out techniques “to increase order out of disorder” and sexual reproduction is the best way to keep what works and discard what does not. When this happens over millions of years you are going to have humans living beside apes which is what we see. Oh, and one more point: science is a mechanism whereby we look for “natural explanations” which are “verifiable by experiment”. As soon as you bring god into the picture you are invoking a “supernatural explanation” (never mind that you would not be able to devise an experimental proof). This is why intelligent design “can never be a science” (although it could remain a philosophy if you get some comfort from the idea)

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