Science has long accepted that the world’s organisms must either evolve or face extinction, as all environments eventually change and species must either adapt or die. With biodiversity at the forefront of many environmental and climate change discussions, however, scientists are searching for fresh insights into how and why one species can diversify to the point of forming a new biological species (the process known as speciation), while another remains unchanged for millions of years.
For most people, the impact of environmental factors on the evolution of a species is a fairly straightforward concept. One example would be a change in the food chain. Losing a type of prey that is a food source, or gaining a new predator, would force a species to adapt if it wanted to survive. In a similar vein, if a climate condition such as temperature, amount of rainfall or hours of sunlight changed, a species would have to evolve to handle factors such as less water or more extreme temperatures – or face extinction.
More subtle, but equally important, to biodiversity are a variety of species-specific traits that can affect speciation. Spontaneous mutations, genetic drift, coloration, behavior patterns, and mate selection can all influence how a species evolves.
The Extrinsic-Intrinsic Interaction
Understanding how external and internal factors interact to influence natural speciation is a key part of predicting and promoting biodiversity – and a case study on this very issue was recently published in Naturemagazine. Researchers began by choosing the African cichlid, a lake-swelling organism with rich diversity that developed over time from a small number of species. A wide range of intrinsic and extrinsic elements, from sexual selection to size and depth of the lakes, were closely examined.
Through their study, researchers were able to identify specific factors that affected speciation, and therefore conclude that the evolutionary process is to some extent predictable. A key corollary to that finding is that it then also becomes possible to predict how human activities and interaction with organisms and their environments can impact biodiversity. In the case of the African cichlids, since diversification depended in part on the depth of the lakes housing the species, then any human action that lowered the lake levels, or caused pollution that reduced the lakes’ habitable depth, could result in a decline in species diversity.
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