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Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin!

February 12, 2016

A photograph of Charles Darwin from 1867 by Ernest Edwards (1837-1903)

The 206th anniversary of Charles Darwin is today, so Happy International Darwin Day!

One big question facing urban wildlife conservation right now is whether or not evolution is happening in front of us. There are certainly behavioral changes that some animals are making in urban areas (some birds sing at a different frequency in cities than their counterparts in rural areas, in order to not have their songs be masked by traffic noise, for example), but the question is whether these changes are being driven by natural selection or by innate plasticity found in the species already (keeping with bird song, maybe they can just sing in different ranges and so choose the appropriate frequency for where they are).

There are also phenotypic changes in some species depending on their surroundings. Perhaps the classic example in urbanized areas are pepper moths in England (although there is some controversy about whether or not this was indeed an example of natural selection, a large, relatively recent study has shown that natural selection alone would account for the change in color in the moths).

My guess is that it’s a bit of both, depending on the species in question and the circumstances of the change. It’s an exciting field of inquiry, and gets to some of the fundamental challenges in conservation biology; if one of our goals is to preserve the possibility of evolution so that species can adjust to changing conditions, then this might be further evidence of the value of urban areas to conservation writ large.

For a good overview of urban wildlife behavior, check out:

Ryan, Amy M., and Partan, Sarah R. 2014. “Urban Wildlife Behavior.” In Urban Wildlife Conservation: Theory and Practice, eds. McCleery, Robert A., Moorman, Christopher E., and Peterson, M. Nils. Pp. 149-174. Springer: New York.


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