Study first to show evolution's impact on ecosystems

April 1, 2009

Scientists have come to agree that different environments impact the evolution of new species. Now experiments conducted at the University of British Columbia are showing for the first time that the reverse is also true.

Researchers from the UBC Biodiversity Research Centre created mini-ecosystems in large aquatic tanks using different species of three-spine stickleback fish and saw substantial differences in the ecosystems in as little as 11 weeks.

Their findings are published in today's Advanced Online Publication of the journal Nature.

Stickleback fish originated in the ocean but began populating freshwater lakes and streams following the last . Over the past 10,000 years - a relatively short time span in evolutionary terms - different species with distinct physical traits have emerged in some fresh water lakes.

The UBC study involved new species found in British Columbia lakes that have evolved distinct physical traits: limnetic sticklebacks (smaller open water dwellers with narrow mouths), benthic sticklebacks (larger bottom dwellers with a wide gape) and a generalist species to represent the probable ancestor of the two species.

"Simply by what they eat and how they live, even young species that have 'recently' diversified can have a major impact on their food web," says study lead author Luke Harmon, who conducted the study while a post-doctoral fellow at UBC. He is now an assistant professor at the University of Idaho. "This study adds to a broader body of literature showing that matters in important ways."

Further analysis showed the tanks with the two newest species had larger molecules of dissolved organic , or bits of decaying plants and animals. This prevented sunlight from penetrating the water and inhibited plant growth.

"Our study shows that through evolution, sticklebacks can engineer the light environment of their own ecosystems," says co-author Blake Matthews, a UBC post-doctoral fellow who is now a researcher at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology. "It also demonstrates how speciation of a predator might alter the evolutionary course of other organisms in the food web."

"As new species arise from a common ancestor and evolve new ways of exploiting the environment, each inadvertently reshapes the dynamics of the ecosystem around it," says co-author UBC Prof. Dolph Schluter. "We are just beginning to understand how."

Source: University of British Columbia (news : web)

Explore further: Choosy females make colourful males

Related Stories

Choosy females make colourful males

May 9, 2006

Female fish prefer brightly coloured males because they are easier to see and are in better shape concludes Dutch researcher Martine Maan following her study of fish speciation in the East African Lakes. Environmental variation ...

Follow that prawn

December 17, 2007

A new study from the University of Leicester reveals that prawns can be used by fish species to find the best places to eat.

Recommended for you

Scientists overcome key CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing hurdle

December 1, 2015

Researchers at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT have engineered changes to the revolutionary CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing system that significantly cut down on "off-target" ...

Study finds 'rudimentary' empathy in macaques

December 1, 2015

(—A pair of researchers with Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and Université Lyon, in France has conducted a study that has shown that macaques have at least some degree of empathy towards their fellow ...

Which came first—the sponge or the comb jelly?

December 1, 2015

Bristol study reaffirms classical view of early animal evolution. Whether sponges or comb jellies (also known as sea gooseberries) represent the oldest extant animal phylum is of crucial importance to our understanding of ...

Trap-jaw ants exhibit previously unseen jumping behavior

December 1, 2015

A species of trap-jaw ant has been found to exhibit a previously unseen jumping behavior, using its legs rather than its powerful jaws. The discovery makes this species, Odontomachus rixosus, the only species of ant that ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.