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Conservation Science for a Healthy Planet

Environmental tipping points key to predicting extinctions

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This graph shows evolutionary response to environmental variation under different levels of predictability and relative timescale of environmental variation.
Credit: Dr. Carlos Botero

Environmental ‘tipping points’ key to predicting extinctions

Posted: 24 Nov 2014 12:25 PM PST

Researchers from North Carolina State University have created a model that mimics how differently adapted populations may respond to rapid climate change. Their findings demonstrate that depending on a population’s adaptive strategy, even tiny changes in climate variability can create a ‘tipping point’ that sends the population into extinction. “These results were in line with what we would expect,” Botero says. “Within their zones, most of these strategies allow for some variability — and in some cases, the changes within zones can be really huge without much effect on the organism. But when the organism gets close to the margin of another zone, even the tiniest change in either predictability or rate of environmental change can result in immediate extinction, because the initial adaptive strategy no longer works.

“We hope that this model can serve as a first step in the process of locating populations that exist close to these boundary areas, so we can better identify species that are most at risk of extinction.”

 

Carlos A. Botero, Franz J. Weissing, Jonathan Wright, Dustin R. Rubenstein. Evolutionary tipping points in the capacity to adapt to environmental change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2014; 201408589 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1408589111

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