So much for high school biology.
Evolution, it turns out, isn’t the long, invisible process we once thought.
Instead, it’s happening all around us, all the time.
By shaping landscapes, dumping pollutants into rivers and lakes, and transforming wild areas into suburban ones, humans are spurning the creation of everything from wild animal hybrids to pests immune to poisons and superbugs that can’t be killed with bacteria.
All of this is taking place at an unprecedented scale.
Thousands of years ago, our cave-dwelling human ancestors got along perfectly fine with bedbugs -- mainly because they were nearly an entirely different species back then.
But as we migrated out of caves and into cities over thousands of years, we brought bedbugs along for the ride. The insects with traits that made them better able to survive their new urban lifestyle -- such as being more active at night, when humans sleep, and having longer, thinner legs for hopping away from us quickly -- outlived their less-evolved bedbug friends.
When food in the chilly coastal waters where they live runs scarce, the bright green sea slug snatches chunks of DNA from the algae they eat. That DNA, coupled with tiny energy-producing powerhouses called chloroplasts, let the slugs to survive on nothing but sunshine for days.
And the algae genes have been getting passed onto the next slug generation via a process known as horizontal gene transfer. So far, these sea slugs are one of the only known examples of this process occurring between multicellular organisms.
A new hybrid of the coyote and the wolf, or coywolf, that first emerged in the last few decades is taking over the Northeastern US. Experts say they're here because human farming and hunting practices drove wolves north and coyotes east.
Roughly two-thirds of the coywolves' DNA is from wolves, while another quarter is from coyotes. The remainder is from domesticated dogs.
But nothing about these animals is domestic: They're bigger than either their wolf or coyote ancestors, and they're social, like wolves, meaning they hunt in packs. According to a new article from The Economist, their population likely just topped a million.
When humans started pumping their air full of pollutants during the Industrial Revolution, that dark soot fell on trees, darkening their bark and endangering the pale peppered moth, who'd easily be picked out by predators on a shadowy tree. Over several generations, as the lightest moths were eaten and the darker moths tended to survive, the majority of moths in the region became dark.
Hello, natural selection.
Today, most moths have returned to their original off-white colour: Pollution control laws of the 1970s made dark moths more prone to getting eaten again.
When New Yorkers started dumping PCBs (a type of industrial toxin) in the Hudson River in 1929, they wiped out a large majority of its wildlife.
But at least one species survived -- and thrived. Over the span of a few decades (PCBs were banned in 1979) a fish called the tomcod evolved to resist the poison via natural selection.
Fish with a special set of genes that make a key poison-shielding protein were the only critters to survive the toxic onslaught. They, in turn, passed their protective genes onto their offspring. Happy fishing!
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