The Evolution Solution

WILLOW WARBLER

Now that I’ve recovered from Austin’s 107-degree days—and the shock of shuttling in and out of an overly air-conditioned convention center—I’m trying to process the takeaways from the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting. There were some great sessions, including one on the nascent Urban Long-Term Research Area (ULTRA) network, which I wrote about at the NYT’s Green blog. It’s yielding some fascinating insights into how cities function as ecosystems, and the unintended consequences of seemingly innocuous policies.

Environmental trade-offs are going to become increasingly common. How can we encourage smarter water use without stripping away vital backyard habitat for native birds? How can we plant trees—for shade, biodiversity, carbon storage, soil stability, etc—without sucking up scarce water supplies? How can we power cities with renewable electricity without destroying fragile landscapes in the process? These are the sorts of questions we need to answer, and the more we can measure and understand urban systems, the better we’ll be at making informed decisions.

Of course, this is true for all ecosystems, not just urban ones. Which is why I was surprised there wasn’t more talk of evolution at ESA. There were a few sessions and a smattering of presentations that sought to bring evolution into ecological thinking, but for the most part they were marginalized or lost in the overwhelming crush of traditional ecology. Not that I’ve got anything against traditional ecology. But I think it’s time to recognize that establishing priorities and setting sound environmental policies in the face of global change means understanding how species adapt. As Andrew Gonzalez, a biologist at McGill University, told me over enchiladas and mole, “We don’t know how to fix an ecosystem, so we have to encourage it to fix itself.” The only way to do this is to bring evolution to bear on ecology. (Which is just one reason I’m excited about Kevin Zelnio’s new blog, EvoEcoLab, over at Scientific American.)

One of the best talks I saw at ESA was by Kristen Ruegg of UC Santa Cruz, who’s combining DNA sequencing and stable isotope measurements to try to solve the mystery of songbird decline. Half of all migratory songbird populations in North America are shrinking, but it’s not clear whether the problem is happening at their breeding grounds, their wintering grounds, or both. Understanding songbird migration—linking a population’s temperate mating area with its tropical getaway—is essential to honing in on what’s killing them. So Ruegg is using feathers—more than 150,000 of them, collected since 1992 and stored at UCLA’s Center for Tropical Research. She’s using isotopic signatures from hydrogen to identify the birds’ wintering locations, and then using single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs (sorry for the crappy, human-focused link) to create a fine-scale genetic map of which birds summer where.

Employing new genetic techniques in the service of understanding nature is an important step forward. I’ll be delving into this topic, here and elsewhere, over the coming months. Evolution happens before our eyes, not just at the glacial pace at which new species arise–and we can no longer afford to ignore it when it’s relevant to environmental decisions. The planet is changing, and species will change with it. We need to understand how. Stay tuned.

Photo via Flickr/Duncan Brown

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