The Red Queen was right: We have to run to keep in place

Jun 20, 2013
As the Red Queen told Alice, "it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place." Similarly, animals and plants must continually adapt and evolve just to avoid going extinct. Credit: Illustration by Sir John Tenniel from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, 1871

Biologists quote Lewis Carroll when arguing that survival is a constant struggle to adapt and evolve. Is that true, or do groups die out because they experience a run of bad luck? Charles Marshall and Tiago Quental of UC Berkeley tested these hypotheses using mammals that arose and died out (or are now dying out) in the past 66 million years, and found that it's not luck but failure to adapt to a deteriorating environment.

The death of individual species is not the only concern for biologists worried about groups of animals, such as frogs or the "," going extinct. University of California, Berkeley, researchers have found that lack of new emerging species also contributes to extinction.

"Virtually no biologist thinks about the failure to originate as being a major factor in the long term causes of extinction," said Charles Marshall, director of the UC Berkeley Museum of Paleontology and professor of . "But we found that a decrease in the origin of new species is just as important as increased extinction rate in driving mammals to extinction."

The results apply to slow change over millions of years, Marshall cautions, not rapid like Earth is now experiencing from human activities. Yet the findings should help understand the pressures on today's flora and fauna and what drove evolution and extinction in the past, he said.

The results, published June 20 in Science Express, come from a study of 19 groups of mammals either extinct or, in the case of horses, elephants, , and others, are in decline from a past peak in diversity. All are richly represented in the and had their origins sometime in the last 66 million years, during the .

The study was designed to test a popular evolutionary theory called the , named after Lewis Carroll's character who in "Through the Looking Glass" described her country as a place where "it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place."

In biology, this means that animals and plants don't just disappear because of bad luck in a static and unchanging environment, like a gambler losing it all to a run of bad luck at the slot machines. Instead, they face constant change – a deteriorating environment and more successful competitors and predators – that requires them to continually adapt and evolve new species just to survive.

Though the specific cause of declining originations and rising extinctions for these groups is unclear, the researchers concluded that their demise was not just dumb luck.

"Each group has either lost, or is losing, to an increasingly difficult environment," Marshall said. "These groups' demise was at least in part due to the loss to the Red Queen, that is, a failure to keep pace with a deteriorating environment."

Marshall and former post-doctoral fellow Tiago Quental found that the groups were initially driven to higher diversity until they reached the carrying capacity of their environment, that is, the maximum number of species their environment can hold, after which their deteriorated to the point where there was too much diversity to be sustained, leading to their extinction.

"In fact our data suggest that biological systems may never be in equilibrium at all, with groups expanding and contracting under persistent and rather, geologically speaking, rapid change" he said.

Marshall and Quental, now at the University of Sao Paolo, Brazil, will present their results in two talks on Saturday, June 22, at the Evolution 2013 meeting in Snowbird, Utah.

Explore further: Human sense of fairness evolved to favor long-term cooperation

More information: "How the Red Queen Drives Terrestrial Mammals to Extinction," by T.B. Quental et al. Science Express, 2013.

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User comments : 10

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VendicarE
2.7 / 5 (7) Jun 20, 2013
Translation. Failure to track variances in the environment increases the probability of extinction.

One of the reasons why taking America back to the way it was 100 years ago - the Republican Vision - is resulting in extinction for America.
ValeriaT
1 / 5 (6) Jun 20, 2013
As the Red Queen told Alice, "it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place."
In AWT we all are Boltzmann brains. The recipe to spontaneous formation of such complexity inside of otherwise random universe is surprisingly simple: we should travel as long path at particular place of the Universe, as we can, i.e. to revolve another revolving system inside it. Just this way enables us to cross as long path across time dimension, as we observe by now. The diameter of observable universe just corresponds the total length, we already traveled inside of Milky Way galaxy and solar system along nested circular paths.
jackjump
2.6 / 5 (5) Jun 20, 2013
Intelligence breaks that rule. We will terraform earth to be suitable for whatever life forms we favor.
skuysandsons
3 / 5 (2) Jun 20, 2013
My thoughts….. There are two types of diversity that we can talk about: That of a diverse number of species in a group, and that of a diversity of possible gene combinations within a species, as mentioned in your June 13 article, "Context crucial when it comes to mutations in genetic evolution, study reports." Another thought I had before reading this article is: We talk about mutations as being the sources of handicaps and diseases. That second article could be another source. As well, they could be as, e.g., humans, have been in the past, where the genes were useful in ways that are no longer as useful. We have evolved more successful combinations such that the successful human today is "more advanced." A suggestion is that many of these old genes are still useful is some contexts. I don't know how many or which ones should be weeded out. Or built upon in new combinations, maybe with some other mutations – or some day genetically modified humans, heaven forbid.
alfie_null
not rated yet Jun 21, 2013
As a group, how do hominids rate? Expanding or contracting?
Disproselyte
1 / 5 (3) Jun 22, 2013
Here you can find info on the evolution of hominids: http://luth2.obsp...omed.pdf

Further development (from http://www.luth.o...lo.htm):
http://www.luth.o...08AN.pdf
http://www.luth.o...08NA.pdf

Latest development on systems biology:
http://arxiv.org/...4311.pdf

One should take into account that for the human species, the biological changes are slower now than social/cultural evolution, so that one is naturally led to study where that is getting us:
http://www.accele...tch.com/
http://globalbrai...ute.org/
Disproselyte
1 / 5 (2) Jun 22, 2013
Oeps, the links above got corrupted!

Here you can find info on the evolution of hominids: http://luth2.obsp...omed.pdf

Further development (from http://www.luth.o...lo.htm):
http://www.luth.o...08AN.pdf
http://www.luth.o...08NA.pdf

Latest development on systems biology:
http://arxiv.org/...4311.pdf

One should take into account that for the human species, the biological changes are slower now than social/cultural evolution, so that one is naturally led to study where that is getting us:
http://www.accele...tch.com/
http://globalbrai...ute.org/

Enjoy!
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
not rated yet Jun 23, 2013
And the crackpots spouts irrelevancies (politics) and lies (there is no aether), nothing new there.

@sas: All organisms are "genetically modified", that is what makes life work under evolution. And FTIW directed gene therapies, which are much less an insult to the genome than a wide selective sweep, has been done already to fix individual problems.
antialias_physorg
1 / 5 (1) Jun 24, 2013
they face constant change – a deteriorating environment and more successful competitors and predators – that requires them to continually adapt and evolve new species just to survive

Sometimes even evolution backs itself into a corner (like with that australian salamander and snake who have an intense predator/prey relationship. The salamander is evolving to be ever more poisonous - to the point where the snake must now shut down for a week after eating one in order to metabolize the poison (becoming easy prey in the process itself))

Generally: slow change gives more chance of an adapted mutation happening. Fast change (e.g. manmade change) lessens that chance. So more species will die out.

In AWT we all are Boltzmann brains.

Holy shmolie...Now you are trying to shoehorn AWT into evolution theory? You really come up with new ways to go crazy at an incredibly rate, don't you?

jlevyellow
1 / 5 (1) Jun 24, 2013
We are our own diversity. People go into science, commerce, government service, agriculture, etc. But the same rule applies: When diversity can no longer be supported by the environment, organisms die back. (Note the reluctance among some people to bring children into the world. This destroys their gene line, but allows others to "fill in.") Simple manufacturing is not highly supported in America any longer, so no one can fall into a job making garbage cans. However, there has been a "back to the earth" movement here for quite some time now. "Make do with less" is a key feature of this thinking. Gardening is seen by these folks as a means of preserving or increasing diversity. Other animals fill niches, while humans create new niches, thus allowing the planet to increase its "holding" capacity.