6,000 years ago humans upturned 300 million years of evolution

Smithsonian.com reports: It’s hard to imagine a global force strong enough to change natural patterns that have persisted on Earth for more than 300 million years, but a new study shows that human beings have been doing exactly that for about 6,000 years.

The increase in human activity, perhaps tied to population growth and the spread of agriculture, seems to have upended the way plants and animals distribute themselves across the land, so that species today are far more segregated than they’ve been at any other time.

That’s the conclusion of a study appearing this week in the journal Nature, and the ramifications could be huge, heralding a new stage in global evolution as dramatic as the shift from single-celled microbes to complex organisms.

A team of researchers led by S. Kathleen Lyons, a paleobiologist at the Evolution of Terrestrial Ecosystems (ETE) program in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, examined the distribution of plants and animals across landscapes in the present and back through the fossil record in search of patterns.

Mostly they found randomness, but throughout time, there was always a small subset of plants and animals that showed up in relationship to one another more often than can be attributed to chance. That relationship either meant that pairs of species occur together, so when you find one, you usually find the other. Or it meant the opposite: when you find one, the other is usually not present, in which case they’re considered segregated. [Continue reading…]

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