For the first time ever, a University of Alberta researcher has discovered that an animal species has changed its genetic make-up to cope with global warming. In the past, organisms have shown the flexibility--or plasticity--to adapt to their surroundings, but this is the first time it has been proven a species has responded genetically to cope with environmental forces.
Dr. Stan Boutin, from the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, has been studying a North American red squirrel population in Canadas southwest Yukon for almost 15 years. The squirrels, faced with increasing spring temperatures and food supply, have advanced the timing of breeding by 18 days over the last 10 years—six days for each generation. His findings appear on First Cite and will appear in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society London B next month.
Boutin and his colleagues used an approach called quantitative genetics, long used in agriculture but never before applied to a wild species. Through analytical modelling, the team of researchers was able to sort out how much of the squirrels’ adaptation is due to a plastic, individual response and how much is due to genetics. “This has never been done before,” said Boutin. “Other researchers have stopped at plasticity.”
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