William & Mary

Scientists expect evolutionary changes from loud and bright world

  • Review author:
    Review author:  John Swaddle is a professor of biology and a founding member of the Institute for Integrative Bird Behavior Studies. He gave the inaugural presentation in what became William & Mary's Tack Faculty Lecture Series.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Humans take for granted the noise and lights associated with cities and other developments across the landscape. For other creatures, these noisy and bright conditions lead to changes in behavior and activity such as the timing or pitch of a bird song in the morning. Scientists have long recorded these changes and now seek to understand whether these altered environments are driving evolution itself.

In a review published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, an international group of ecologists and evolutionary biologists outlined the ways in which evolutionary responses to human-produced lights and noise might be measured and how researchers might separate evolutionary changes from changes in behavior that are not long-lasting.

“It would be surprising if the widespread and enormous transformation of the visual and acoustic environment, associated with humans’ buildings and traffic, did not leave its mark through evolutionary selection on species of wildlife,” said John Swaddle, professor of biology at William & Mary. Swaddle is lead author of the study, along with Professor Clinton Francis of California State Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo.

“We see some intriguing examples suggesting evolutionary change and use this paper to propose a research agenda in this field,” Swaddle said. “We want to know whether wildlife can evolve fast enough to cope with the rapid environmental change caused by humans.”

The research team collated many examples of behavioral responses to human-produced light and sound and linked these with heritable characteristics that might be investigated.

“Almost no corner of the Earth has escaped from human-produced light and noise,” said co-author Travis Longcore of the University of Southern California. “Understanding how these stressors shape evolution can help us to devise programs to protect species and habitats wherever such impacts are found.”

The piece, “A framework to assess evolutionary responses to anthropogenic light and sound,” is published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

From a release submitted by the authors.