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Adapting to climate change “it’s in our genes” — Another reason to ignore the extinction scare

Two model outcomes

Two different models predict two totally different futures. On the left, catastrophic extinction. On the right, happy bats. Click to enlarge

Yesterday a UN supercommittee of 145 scientists from 50 countries declared that one million species are set for extinction. The same day, ten other scientists published a paper pointing out that most modelers forget to allow for genetic variation and thus overestimate the extinction rate. (It’s like they’re modelling the World of Clones – take one small study, pretend they’re all the same — extrapolate globally.) Have a look at the big difference in model outcomes in figure 1 (right).

As I keep saying, 500 million years of brutal climate change means almost every species carries around an industrial tool-kit of handy genetic tricks. Matz et al estimated corals already have the genes to survived another 250 years of projected IPCC catastrophe (in the unlikely event that it happens). Liew et al showed corals even have epigenetic tricks as well as genetics ones.  Another group showed when corals are heated something like 74 different genes are activated — often  genes that we don’t even know what they’re there for.

My favourite all time Global Adaptability Prize goes to the saltwater ocean fish that were landlocked by an earthquake in 1964. Fifty years later, the descendants of those fish are freshwater fish. Nothing gets much more adaptable than that.

Razgour et al looked at 300 bats in Italy which had adapted to either hot and dry or cool and wet conditions. They took gene samples and found so much variation that they calculate that as long as the different bats can do long distance dating across the different forests their kids will cope just fine with a lot of climate change.  They looked at habitat loss, but even in over-developed capitalist Europe they estimate the hot-n-dry bats won’t have any trouble meeting cold-n-wet ones.

So much for the extinction disaster:

Genetic adaptation to climate change

Failure to account for genetic variation can result in overestimating extinction risk

Razgour et al, 2019

New research led by the University of Southampton has shown that the threat of range losses for some species as a result of climate change could be overestimated because of the ability of certain animals to adapt to rising temperatures and aridity. …

“Our findings suggest that incorporating adaptive intraspecific genetic variation is essential for realistic projections of species range losses under climate change and for preventing overestimation of future biodiversity losses.”

Current methods for assessing vulnerability ignore the potential for some animal populations to adapt genetically to their changing environment, meaning they are able to survive in warming temperatures and drier conditions better than other populations within the same species.

Dr Razgour said: “The most commonly used approach for forecasting the bats’ future suggests that the range of suitable habitats for them would diminish rapidly due to climate change. However, this assumes all bats within the same species cope with changing temperatures and drier climates in the same way. We developed a new approach that takes into account the ability of bats within the same species to adapt to different climatic conditions.”

Dr Razgour concluded: “We believe that if this model is used when assessing the vulnerability of any species to climate change we could reduce erroneous predictions and misplaced conservation efforts. Any conservation strategy should consider how individual animals can adapt locally and should focus not only on areas with threatened populations but also on making movement between populations easier. This is why it is important to look at the combined effect of climate change and habitat loss.”


Razgour et al (2019) Considering adaptive genetic variation in climate change vulnerability assessment reduces species range loss projections PNAS.  https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1820663116

Liew, Y.J. Zoccola, D., Li, Y., Tambutté, E., Venn, A.A., Michell, C.T. Cui, G., Deutekom, E.S., Kaandorp, J.A., Voolstra, C.R., Forêt, S., Allemand, D., Tambutté, S. & Aranda, M. Epigenome-associated phenotypic acclimatization to ocean acidification in a reef-building coral. Science Advances 4, eaar8028 (2018).| http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aar8028  Press release.

Matz MV, Treml EA, Aglyamova GV, Bay LK (2018) Potential and limits for rapid genetic adaptation to warming in a Great Barrier Reef coral. PLoS Genet 14(4): e1007220. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pgen.1007220

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