Going up: birds and mammals evolve faster if their home is rising


06-09-2021
  Wild Kea, New Zealand  Credit: Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

The rise and fall of Earth’s land surface over the last three million years shaped the evolution of birds and mammals, a new study has found, with new species evolving at higher rates where the land has risen most.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have combined reconstructions of the Earth’s changing surface elevations over the past three million years with data on climate change over this timeframe, and with bird and mammal species’ locations. Their results reveal how species evolved into new ones as land elevation changed - and disentangle the effects of elevation from the effects of climate.

The study found that the effect of elevation increase is greater than that of historical climate change, and of present-day elevation and temperature, in driving the formation of new species – ‘or speciation’.

In contrast to areas where land elevation is increasing, elevation loss was not found to be an important predictor of where speciation happens. Instead, present-day temperature is a better indicator of speciation in these areas.

The results are published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

“Often at the tops of mountains there are many more unique species that aren’t found elsewhere. Whereas previously the formation of new species was thought to be driven by climate, we’ve found that elevation change has a greater effect at a global scale,” said Dr Andrew Tanentzap in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences, senior author of the paper.

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Image: Wild Kea, New Zealand

Credit: Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

Reproduced courtesy of the University of Cambridge

 

The University of Cambridge is acknowledged as one of the world's leading higher education and research institutions. The University was instrumental in the formation of the Cambridge Network and its Vice- Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, is also the President of the Cambridge Network.

University of Cambridge (cam.ac.uk)