In wild animals, the ‘fuel’ that powers the engine of evolution is more abundant than expected: the breadth of genetic differences on which the ability to survive and reproduce depends is 2 to 4 times higher than what has been estimated so far. This is indicated by the genetic analyzes carried out in 30 years on 19 populations of 15 species of birds and mammals from all over the world, crossed with the data collected in 2.6 million hours of field work. The work, crucial for estimating fauna’s ability to adapt to environmental changes, is published in Science by a team of 40 researchers from 27 institutes led by Timothée Bonnet of the Australian National University.
The study is the first to have evaluated the speed of evolution on a systematic scale on a large scale. For each specimen examined, the researchers tried to reconstruct when it was born, how many partners and puppies it had and when it died. This information, collected in the field in almost 30 years of research, was crossed with DNA data to estimate how much genetic differences weighed on the ability to reproduce. After three years of work, Bonnet and his collaborators were able to estimate how much species had changed as a result of genetic changes caused by natural selection.
The results showed that spotted hyenas have the greatest evolutionary potential: the genetic pedigree of over 2,000 specimens, studied for over 26 years in Tanzania by German researchers from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, shows that they are the best equipped species among the 15 designed and can easily adapt to new environments.
“With the habitats of many species changing faster and faster – observes Bonnet – there is no guarantee that these populations will be able to keep up. But what we can say is that evolution is a much more important driver. than we thought in the adaptation of populations to the environmental changes we are seeing “.
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