The Alicia Patterson Fellowship, and a Two-Minute Interview with Craig Stockwell

I’m pleased to report that I’m a 2012 Alicia Patterson Fellow. The Alicia Patterson Foundation–established in honor of the longtime editor and publisher of Newsday, in 1965–funds reporters for a year to work on a series of articles on a theme. I was surprised and thrilled that my project won, because it’s both fairly science-heavy and focused on conservation. And I’m used to conservation stories being a tough sell.

My project is called “The Evolution Fix: Saving Species in the DNA Era.” I’ll be publishing stories on this general topic throughout the year, hopefully in some high-profile venues. (Editors: hint, hint…) I’ll be exploring how evolution is intersecting with ecology, and how the advent of fast, cheap DNA analysis is affecting our conservation decisions—and ultimately influencing our view of nature itself. Tied into this are ethical and legal issues, as well as questions about what defines a species.

Earlier this month, I went to Fargo, North Dakota to speak at a media-training workshop for biology grad students. (I’ve now been to all 50 states!) There, I spent some time with Craig Stockwell, director of North Dakota State University’s Environmental & Conservation Sciences Graduate Program and a biologist who studies the evolutionary ecology of fish populations. We talked a bit about rapid evolutionary change, the idea that evolution can happen extremely quickly—over decades, rather than eons. But I confess it wasn’t until I got home that I thought to do a one-question interview. So here it is, somewhat stupidly conducted via email.

Q: Why is rapid evolutionary change so important for us to recognize and understand? What role can it play in conservation decision making?

A: Contrary to long-held dogma, it seems that evolution can occur within a few decades. Biologists have observed evidence for such contemporary evolution for populations of fish, birds, and mammals, as well as various plant species. Contemporary evolution often occurs in response to human-associated phenomena, such as climate change, invasive species and habitat degradation. In fact, the same factors that are driving the current extinction crisis also drive contemporary evolution. For instance, many populations have been shown to evolve in response to invasive predators. Further, invasive species have also been shown to evolve as they invade new habitats.

In the early 1990s, such responses were rarely documented, but over the last few decades, a large number of studies have documented contemporary evolution. In fact, some biologists wonder if instead of being a rare phenomenon, perhaps contemporary evolution has become the norm. This has led to a paradigm shift in evolutionary biology, and now researchers are examining how such evolution may affect population persistence and various ecological relationships.

Although scientists have embraced the study of contemporary evolution, the applications to conservation have not yet been applied widely by the management community. It is very likely that as we learn more it will become more apparent that managers who have historically assumed their systems to be evolutionarily static will need to incorporate an evolutionarily enlightened approach to management. For instance, assisted colonization has been discussed as one management option protecting species in the face of climate change. However, it may be in some cases that such species have the potential to evolve in situ [meaning right where they are], whereas other species have limited genetic variation for such change, making it critical to identify which species will need such assistance.

The first of my “Evolution Fix” stories will appear in High Country News later this month.

Also, my New Year’s resolution is to be a better blogger. Stay tuned.

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