Could Predicting Evolution be our Best Chance at Saving Endangered Species?

Important and beautiful creatures are in danger of dying out as extinction rates rise to over 1000x greater than the historical average. Saving them needs to happen now but Tim Coulsen and co from university of Yale explain that predicting future evolution is what holds the key to understanding how to save our beautiful beasts.

The environment determines evolution. For example, the Grey Wolves in Yellowstone that live in an area of dense forest are more likely to have black fur than their counterparts that live in the open. Similarly, those that are surrounded by larger prey are more likely to be larger. Theoretically, if we account for all aspects that could influence evolutionary traits, we could use models to predict future changes.

Those that manage National Parks could then use the predictions to try and keep populations stable during the threat of climate change. Wider uses include estimating the likelihood of extinctions, and the environmental changes that would be needed in order to save endangered species.

Although Tim warns that accurate predictions are still not possible, using these models could be our best chance of saving endangered species.

The Soil we Live on is Disappearing and it is YOUR Responsibility.

Borrelli from the UN explains how poorer countries hold the key to sustaining our soils, but that everybody is responsible.

We rely on soil for almost all aspects of our lives, from the food and water we consume, the clothes we wear to the buildings we live in. However, a population rise, poor farming practises and changing land use has put immense pressure on this humble but essential resource, with 1,390,000,000,000,000 kilos of soil, or 2,800,000 football pitches, lost each year from erosion.

For the average person soil is known un-affectionately as filth, dirt or muck, for big companies as a kind of self sustaining gold mine and for farmers as a means for economic survival. The result is a global population that overwhelmingly and catastrophically underappreciate its importance.

Borrelli uses complex models to explain how poorer countries hold the key to future soil sustainability as they have more pristine land to exploit, such as the Amazon in South America, and a population growing faster than anywhere else in the world. A cocktail for potentially astronomic soil erosion.

Taken at face value, the models would seem to suggest that poorer countries are the issue and that they should take responsibility. However, as Borrelli indicates, part of this is just that these are countries that haven’t already destroyed their soils, as most western countries have done. Furthermore, the land is often used to produce exotic food, clothes or materials for westerners that blissfully ignore where the products have come from and the implications their consumption has. These goods are often produced in dangerous conditions for low wages, all to the tune of western CEOs that will never set foot on the farm or factory.

Whilst it remains true that the most important land for ensuring soil survival is the land in poorer countries, this is a global issue, and one that takes global responsibility. Poorer countries and their farmers need help from the rest of the world, including you, if we are to have any hope of sustaining this precious resource for future generations.

Why Charles Darwin was wrong about the tree of life.

A sketch from Darwin’s notebook in 1837, showing the tree of life (Photograph: getty images).

In 1837 Charles Darwin scribbled ‘I think’ followed by a thin messy tree (above) which turned out to become one of the most iconic and influential sketches in evolutionary biology. The tree of life is key to his theory of evolution and proposes that genes are simply passed down individual ‘branches’ without any overlap. When a new species is arises they are completely separate from any other.

Dr Chris Jiggins and co from the University of Cambridge examined two exotic and brightly coloured Amazonian butterfly species to explain that the difference between species is not as clear cut as Darwin’s work implies.

Bright black white and red Butterflies

After running around the Amazon frantically swinging nets, they caught two kinds of black butterfly with vibrant splashes of red and white (pictured right). Despite being different species and on separate branches of the tree of life, at any place they looked almost identical, implying that they share genes. It turns out that the two species copy each others bright colours and patterns in order to warn predators that they are poisonous. Any butterfly that didn’t have the same colours and patterns were more likely to be attacked by predators as they were not seen as toxic.

Further insight into the genetics reflects the similarity of these species. Remarkably, there are just four genes that control almost all colour and pattern in both kinds of butterfly, exposing that different species do in fact share genes and there is an overlap of the branches in the tree of life.

The findings revealed that two species of butterfly that are supposedly completely different, shared important genes in predator avoidance, meaning that Darwin’s drawing is far too simple. Instead, evolution is more like a thick web than a simple tree. However, it seems that Darwin himself might have realised this, describing evolution as more of a ‘tangled bank.’