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Issue 468, 4 June 2001

Evolution disrupted by global warming

Adapting to change: the brown argus butterfly

Many rare and localised species may die out as a result of global warming, warn researchers from the centre for biodiversity and conservation. Their research, published in last week’s Nature, shows that climate change is having a direct impact on the process of evolution.

The Earth’s climate has warmed rapidly over the last 30 years and will get hotter still during the next century. Studies have shown that animals and plants around the world are moving to higher latitudes and altitudes to find cooler conditions. Professor Chris Thomas and colleagues demonstrated that this is made possible both by adaptation to new habitats and by evolutionary change.

The team found that two butterfly species, the silver-spotted skipper (Hesperia comma) and the brown argus (Aricia agestis) adapt to different habitats to extend their range to cooler areas, thereby spreading faster than would otherwise have been possible.

The bush cricket species each include two types — one unable to fly, or of very limited flying ability, and one longer-winged variety that can fly much further. As the species have moved northwards, the incidence of long-winged individuals has increased dramatically, accelerating the range of expansion.

Professor Thomas explains: "At walking pace, these insects would struggle to cross a field, yet they are spreading at more than five miles a year. Their ranges have expanded around ten times faster than expected before the climate began to warm, because the insects themselves have changed — evolutionary change due to global warming."

"These results don’t mean that it’s possible for all species to adapt to climate change, as the changes required to survive are quite considerable," warns Dr Robert Wilson. "Rare and localised species, in particular, may die out before they change enough to get themselves out of trouble. We need to reduce greenhouse emissions immediately, to lessen the disruption global warming is causing."

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