Foraminifera, Wikimedia Commons
The Pith: The tree if life is nourished by agon, but pruned by the gods. More literally, both interactions between living organisms and the changes in the environment impact the pulsing of speciation and extinction.
No one can be a true “Renaissance Man” today. One has to pick & choose the set of focuses to which one must turn one’s labor to. Life is finite and subject to trade offs. My interest in evolutionary science as a child was triggered by a fascination with paleontology. In particular the megafauna of the Mesozoic and the Cenozoic, dinosaurs and other assorted reptilian lineages as well as the hosts of extinct and exotic mammals which are no more. Obviously I don’t put much time into those older interests at this point, and I’m as much of a civilian when I read Laelaps as you are. More generally when it comes to evolution I focus on the scale of microevolution rather than macroevolution. Evolutionary genetics and the like, rather than paleontology. This is in part because I lean toward a scale independence in evolutionary process, so that the critical issue for me has been to understand the fundamental lowest level dynamics at work. I’m a reductionist.
I am not quite as confident about the ability to extrapolate so easily from evolutionary genetic phenomena upwards in scale as I was in the years past. But let’s set that aside for a moment, and take a stroll through macroevolution. When I speak of natural selection I often emphasize that much of this occurs through competition within a species. I do so because I believe that the ubiquity of this process is often not properly weighted by the public, where there is a focus on competition between species or the influence of exogenous environmental selective pressures. The intra- and inter- species competition dynamic can be bracketed into the unit of selection debate, as opposed to the exogenous shocks of climate and geology. The former are biotic and the latter are abiotic variables which shape the diversity and topology of the tree of life.
A new paper in Science attempts to quantify the effect of these two classes of variables on the evolutionary arc of a particular marine organism over the Cenozoic, roughly the last 65 million years since the extinction of the dinosaurs. Interplay Between Changing Climate and Species’ Ecology Drives Macroevolutionary Dynamics:
Change is quite in the air today, whether it be climate change or human induced habitat shifts. What’s a species in the wild to do? Biologists naturally worry about loss of biodiversity a great deal, and many non-biologist humans rather high up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs also care. And yet species loss, or the threat of extinction, seems too often to impinge upon public consciousness in a coarse categorical sense. For example the EPA classifications such as “threatened” or “endangered.” There are also vague general warnings or forebodings; warmer temperatures leading to mass extinctions as species can not track their optimal ecology and the like. And these warnings seem to err on the side of caution, as if populations of organisms are incapable of adapting, and all species are as particular as the panda.
That’s why I pointed to a recent paper in PLoS Biology, Adaptation, Plasticity, and Extinction in a Changing Environment: Towards a Predictive Theory below. I am somewhat familiar with one of the authors, Russell Lande, and his work in quantitative and ecological genetics, as well as population biology. I was also happy to note that the formal model here is rather spare, perhaps a nod to the lack of current abstraction in this particular area. Why start complex when you can start simple? Here’s their abstract:
Many species are experiencing sustained environmental change mainly due to human activities. The unusual rate and extent of anthropogenic alterations of the environment may exceed the capacity of developmental, genetic, and demographic mechanisms that populations have evolved to deal with environmental change. To begin to understand the limits to population persistence, we present a simple evolutionary model for the critical rate of environmental change beyond which a population must decline and go extinct. We use this model to highlight the major determinants of extinction risk in a changing environment, and identify research needs for improved predictions based on projected changes in environmental variables. Two key parameters relating the environment to population biology have not yet received sufficient attention. Phenotypic plasticity, the direct influence of environment on the development of individual phenotypes, is increasingly considered an important component of phenotypic change in the wild and should be incorporated in models of population persistence. Environmental sensitivity of selection, the change in the optimum phenotype with the environment, still crucially needs empirical assessment. We use environmental tolerance curves and other examples of ecological and evolutionary responses to climate change to illustrate how these mechanistic approaches can be developed for predictive purposes.