Humans Made This Planet Hell. Hopefully We Can Help Some Species Adapt

This week the UN released a horrifying report—by hundreds of authors around the world—warning that a million species of plants and animals face extinction in the next few decades. That’s one in four species on this planet that could soon disappear. Virtually every human activity—agriculture, energy production, fishing, urbanization—is conspiring to destroy life on Earth as we know it.

The scale of the problem is difficult to comprehend, let alone solve without eliminating all humans. But on the same day that the UN dropped its alarming report, another group of scientists published research that could help conservationists fight the most important battle in Earth’s recent history.

The study involved two cryptic species of bat—meaning they look nearly identical, yet have distinct genetics—living in Europe, which is expected to transform dramatically under the weight of climate change. The researchers found separate populations within these two species by looking at their DNA. What they discovered was that those populations’ genetic differences made them better suited to their particular environments.

“We can identify, first of all, parts of the genome that are associated with climatic conditions,” says Orly Razgour, a molecular ecologist at the University of Southampton and lead author on the new paper in the journal PNAS. “The second step, we look at these specific regions only, and within them we can divide our individuals into those that are more adapted to warm and dry conditions, and those that are more adapted to cold and wet conditions.”

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What’s new in this study isn’t the existence of populations with subtly different genetics within a species. The new bit here is the potential to exploit specific regions of the genome that might code for climate resilience to inform conservation efforts. Theoretically, this genetic diversity would make the bats more resilient to climate change, because a population that’s more adapted to arid conditions can interbreed with a population that’s less so, in essence “gifting” the cold-adapted population the genes necessary to survive a warmer world.

Using this data, the researchers could model projected range losses in the bats, and found that the losses were less severe when considering a species as distinctly adapted populations, as opposed to one genetically homogenous population across an entire range. “What this really means is that we may be overestimating for some species projected range losses,” says Razgour. “When we think about which species we need to prioritize under climate change, we may not actually be prioritizing the right ones, because we’re not taking into account the adaptive potential of some species.”

This is where things get much more complicated on a number of levels. For one, generation times are a big consideration when it comes to the adaptability of species. One of the reasons bacteria are so deft at developing resistance to antibiotics is that they reproduce extremely rapidly—E. coli, for example, divides every 20 minutes. New bacteria with the lucky mutations that keep them alive pass those mutations along to their descendants, while their less-lucky compatriots perish.

The same principle is behind climate-related genes spreading through a bat population, only on a much slower scale. “If the generation time of these bats is one to two years,” says Razgour, “and you have one young per year, it takes a very, very long time for anything to spread through the population.”

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