Humans Are Forcing New Species To Appear Through Unnatural Selection

Poaching of the African elephant is undoubtedly causing the surrounding environment's organisms to take an unnatural evolutionary path. EcoPrint/Shutterstock
Robin Andrews 29 Jun 2016, 21:01

We are enforcing our own form of zoological regime change on the world. Much like any other mass extinction, the wholesale alteration of the climate and the environment is pushing thousands of species into permanent oblivion. However, it’s also creating a fair few new species too, and a new study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, highlights this oft-ignored fact.

Whether it’s through the domestication of animals and plants, genetically modifying flora and fauna to serve our own needs, forced extinctions via hunting, or direct alterations to the environment through deforestation, cityscape expansion, or climate change, we are altering the process of evolution like never before.

By looking at several case studies of organisms brought about by unnatural selection, the team of researchers hope to shine a light on the various ways in which humanity can drive the generation of new forms of life. The evolutionary lineages that are surviving are sometimes developing into incredibly novel species at remarkable speeds, which could be referred to as man-made speciation or even unnatural selection.

Although these new species, some of which are hybrids, can often thrive in this human-dominated world, the authors of the study stress that it doesn’t offset the species extinction rates seen around the planet. In fact, they argue that just comparing the total number of new species to older ones in order to ascertain biodiversity is outdated. Rather, a more nuanced understanding of biodiversity could be gained if researchers focus on what kinds of new species are evolving, and ultimately determining if they came about through indirect human action.

“The prospect of 'artificially' gaining novel species through human activities is unlikely to elicit the feeling that it can offset losses of 'natural' species,” co-author Joseph Bull, a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate at the University of Copenhagen, said in a statement. “Indeed, many people might find the prospect of an artificially biodiverse world just as daunting as an artificially impoverished one.”

Image in text: The London Underground mosquito, a new species brought about by man-made speciation. Walkabout12/Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA 3.0

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