A new field called paleoepigenetics is probing how evolution responds to sudden stress

Ferris Jabr writes: Every year the paleontologist Alan Cooper meets up with a band of miners in the Yukon. As the miners go about their work, spraying massive jets of water at frozen mud and silt to excavate gold, they also expose animal remains from the Pleistocene, between 2 million and 12,000 years ago. Back then, North America was a riot of big mammals. Antelope, camels, llamas, and indigenous horses roamed the vast plains; lions, saber-toothed cats, and dire wolves prowled for prey; and giant ground sloths lumbered along, stripping tree branches of leaves and fruit.

But, by the time the planet transitioned to the current geological epoch, the Holocene, the vast majority of those species had gone extinct, most likely due to climate change or hunting by humans. Climate change in the Pleistocene was “huge, frequent, and rapid,” says Cooper, director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide. “Sometimes a change of 10 degrees centigrade over a space of a decade or two.” It’s difficult for animals to cope with such dramatic shifts through standard evolution by natural selection, which often takes decades — even millennia — to spread advantageous genetic mutations and hone adaptations. [Continue reading…]

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