NMU Biology Assistant Professor Diana Lafferty has been involved in an international research collaboration that set out to discover whether adaptive evolution can rescue animals that change coat colors with the seasons in the face of a changing climate and decreasing snow cover. A related article she co-authored was recently published in “Science” magazine.
"I’m really excited to be part of a diverse team of researchers from around the world that is working to identify ways in which evolutionary processes, such as species’ adaptation to human-mediated climate change, can be integrated into conservation planning," said Lafferty.
According to a University of Montana press release on the project, 21 species of mammals and birds rely on the ability to change their coat color from brown in summer to white in winter to avoid fatal encounters with predators, but in some parts of their range individuals forgo the white molt and remain brown in winter.
“This is a genetic adaptation to retain camouflage in areas where snow is intermittent or sparse,” said University of Montana Professor L. Scott Mills, who led the scientific team.
The team previously found that winter white snowshoe hares confronting snowless ground have higher mortality rates that could drive massive population declines as snow duration continues to decrease. Other scientists have pointed to coat-color mismatch against snowless ground as a cause for recent range contractions of hares, ptarmigan and other species.
In the “Science” article, the international team identified areas that could foster evolutionary rescue of species particularly vulnerable to climate change. The study describes how the team mapped polymorphic zones for eight color-changing species, including hares, weasels and the Artic fox. In these zones, both brown and white individuals coexist in winter.
“These areas hold the special sauce for rapid evolutionary rescue,” said Mills. “Because they contain winter-brown individuals better adapted to shorter winters, these polymorphic populations are primed to promote rapid evolution toward being winter brown instead of white as climate changes.”
Other partners in the research include North Carolina State University, the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, the Universidade do Porto in Portugal, the German Remote Sensing Data Center, the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg and Russia’s Institute of Systematics and Ecology of Animals.
The “Science” article is titled “Winter color polymorphisms identify global hot spots for evolutionary rescue from climate change.”
For more information on the research, visit http://www.umt.edu/research/millslab/coat.php.