Deer evolve to give birth ear­lier as cli­mate warms

En­vi­ron­ment: An­i­mals on Rum show ge­netic change in just a few decades

The Press and Journal (Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire) - - NEWS - BY ALIS­TAIR MUNRO

Red deer on one of the Small Isles are pro­vid­ing some of the first ev­i­dence that wild an­i­mals are evolv­ing to give birth ear­lier in the year as the cli­mate warms.

Ge­netic changes to red deer on Rum have played a key role in a rapid shift in birth dates in re­cent years, new re­search shows.

Pre­vi­ous stud­ies have shown that the deer have been giv­ing birth ear­lier since the 1980s, at a rate of about three days per 10 years, partly due to the ef­fects of warmer tem­per­a­tures on the deer’s be­hav­iour and phys­i­ol­ogy.

Now sci­en­tists have re­vealed that ge­netic changes caused by nat­u­ral selection – the the­ory of evo­lu­tion de­vel­oped by Charles Dar­win – are also in­volved.

The study pro­vides a rare ex­am­ple of evo­lu­tion hap­pen­ing fast enough to be de­tected over a rel­a­tively low num­ber of gen­er­a­tions.

A team in­clud­ing sci­en­tists from Ed­in­burgh Univer­sity made the dis­cov­ery us­ing field records and ge­netic data col­lected on Rum since 1972.

Fe­male red deer – called hinds – give birth to a sin­gle calf each year, and those that re­pro­duce ear­lier in the year have more off­spring over their life­time, re­searchers say.

Their find­ings show that this is partly be­cause of an as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween the genes that make hinds give birth ear­lier and higher over­all re­pro­duc­tive suc­cess. As a re­sult, genes for breed­ing ear­lier have be­come more com­mon in the Rum pop­u­la­tion.

The re­search in­volved sci­en­tists from the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity and the uni­ver­si­ties of St An­drews and Cam­bridge. It was funded by the Nat­u­ral En­vi­ron­ment Re­search Coun­cil. The Isle of Rum Na­tional Na­ture Re­serve is man­aged by Scot­tish Nat­u­ral Her­itage.

Dr Ti­mothee Bon­net, of the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity, who led the study, said: “This is one of the few cases where we have doc­u­mented evo­lu­tion in ac­tion, show­ing that it may help pop­u­la­tions adapt to cli­mate warm­ing.”

Pro­fes­sor Josephine Pem­ber­ton of Ed­in­burgh’s School of Bi­o­log­i­cal Sciences said: “Longterm stud­ies of in­di­vid­ual life­times are one of the few ways to un­der­stand how pop­u­la­tions re­spond to environmen­tal change and how to man­age its ef­fects.”

DARWINISM IN AC­TION: Red deer on the Small Isle of Rum have shown a rapid shift in birth dates, three days ear­lier for ev­ery 10 years since the 1980s

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