Monday, August 22, 2011

Cryptic Diversity: how genetics can play a role in climate change survivability

Cryptic diversity - a relatively new term to describe hidden variations within a single species, identifying lineages that could be used to ascertain the survivability of the species due to the impact of climate change.

An article in Nature News describes a study published in Nature Climate Change detailing the findings of researchers from the Senckenberg Research Institutes and Natural History Museum
in Geinhausen, Germany. The researchers studied several insect species at the mitochondrial DNA level to ascertain subtle differences within species, which they cataloged as Evolutionary Significant Units or ESUs - populations with a species that are genetically distinct from the rest of its kind.

Extrapolating their findings to insects throughout Europe, the researchers came to a sobering conclusion regarding the survivability of their test subjects as to whether they could adapt to higher temperatures or migrate to more suitable (ie: colder) conditions. 79% of the ESUs in the study group, it was theorized, would be extinct by 2080, a much higher rate than species in general. And it seems, the more diverse the species, the greater the chance of lowered survivability - something that runs counter to what some would logically believe.

Now, this may seem a bit arcane as it is a study based on using insects. Can this be extrapolated to all species? Well, it's certainly possible. Populations of any creature - plant or
animal - that have evolved within, say, a specific geographic area may not be able to adapt to rises in temperature or just may not have the genetic disposition to migrate. There have been reports of large animals, like moose, that would not be inclined to travel further north into Canada and would therefore face possible extinction. So, the concept of cryptic diversity could be applicable to creatures large and small.

The researchers concede that there are other factors that must be studied further, along with the cryptic diversity theory, like the "dispersal capacity" or potential ability to migrate by various species.

For the most part, scientists overwhelmingly agree on the concept and reality of climate change. But it is a new arena being studied and how nature adapts and whether those adaptations lead to continued diversity or a drastic reduction of the complexity and range of species in nature remains to be seen. Indications, however, point to an inconvenient truth that is not promising and to which mankind has culpability and the responsibility to change the outcome.

"Through our work to determine climate-adaptation strategies, we realize that genetics is one way to get an overall better view of how species are affected by climate change," says Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, a United Nations-organized effort to develop plans for sustaining biodiversity.

Read more about cryptic biodiversity in Nature News.

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