Micro-evolutionary response to climate change in wild populations

Patricia brekke

Nationality British

Year of selection 2011

Institution Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London

Country United Kingdom

Risk Environment

Post-Doctoral Fellowship

2 years


Survival of the fittest: the old saying is back on the agenda for the 22nd century as rapid climate changes produce a range of new selection pressures on wild populations. Indeed, as physical environments evolve, species must adapt to cope with these changes. Understanding their response will be of extreme importance to the maintenance of biodiversity and climate change mitigation. Yet, Dr. Brekke points out that most studies to date have been based on range shift* and phenotypic plasticity,* whereas the role of evolutionary adaptation (i.e. genetic change) remains elusive. Indeed, there is a limited understanding of the relative importance of evolutionary adaptation or how it interacts with phenotypically plastic responses. While some advocate plasticity as the most important mechanism to cope with climate change, others consider genetic adaptation to be key, as it is a requisite for coping with long-term environmental changes.

Finally, understanding how wild species respond to climate change when range shift is nearly impossible (e.g. island or fragmented populations) is especially important, as a vast number of threatened species fall into this category. This lack of information hinders our ability to predict and manage the effects of climate change on biodiversity. Dr. Brekke’s study will address this gap by using a novel approach of coupling climate change studies with reintroduction (translocation) biology, focusing on an endemic* New Zealand bird, the hihi. The hihi are endangered forest-dwelling birds, restricted to a single self-sustaining remnant island population. However, they have been subject to a number of reintroductions, which have been intensely monitored. In addition to this data, Dr. Brekke’s pioneering work prompts her to combine experimental translocation and quantitative genetics using multiple life-history traits and climatic factors, with a view to understanding how two contrasting, but not mutually exclusive mechanisms (plastic and genetic) can explain evolutionary responses within populations of the hihi. Besides contributing to our understanding of adaptation to global climate change and informing conservation management and NGO policies, this study will also generate information that could be used in climate change forecasts to predict changes in biodiversity.

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