Of roads and evolution

  A Spotted Salamander, whose range includes southern New England.

A Spotted Salamander, whose range includes southern New England.

Adapted from an item in Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary,'' in GoLocal24.com

WNPR, a Public Radio station in Connecticut, ran an intriguing little feature the other week headlined “Along Highways, Wildlife Appears to Be Breaking Evolutionary Speed Limit’’ .  See:  http://wnpr.org/post/along-highways-wildlife-appears-be-breaking-evolutionary-speed-limits

The story, which focuses on New England ecology, looks at “how roads, and the salts and chemicals we put on those roads, impact nearby nature. Some impacts are visible: think road kill and fragmented habitat.’’

Steven Brady, an evolutionary ecologist who has been working with a Dartmouth College-led research group, reports:

"Individual plants that are living right next to a road, in a couple different cases, have evolved the ability to deal with higher concentrations of things like lead, from fuel’’.

Mr. Brady has studied how roads affect amphibians in northeastern Connecticut. He notes that rapid evolution has a time element but also plays out in isolated pockets of space. Across ‘’just tens of meters, scientists are seeing differences in how one group of amphibians evolves compared to another nearby population,’’ the text with the broadcast says.

Colin Donihue, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University who studies how lizards evolve in human-dominated landscapes, said that species are evolving within human life spansmakes conservation more of a moving target.

"That idea that ecology and evolution happen on commensurate time scales and can actually feed back and forth to affect each other is a really powerful new way of looking at the interplay of ecology and evolution,"  Mr. Donihue told WNPR.

"The things we do to the planet -- even when they seem minimal, like a road through a forest -- are not only causing this impact on how well a population does, but it's fundamentally changing the biology of the organisms that live there,’’ Mr. Brady said.

That evolution is happening fastest in places where global warming is fastest, such as Rhode Island.