Friday, July 11, 2008

Conserving Evolution

A lot of people don't seem to realise that evolution involves extinction just as much as it does the development of new species. The niches that species evolve to fill were not empty before they came along. Rather the newcomers out-competed the existing species and took over. In the process they affect the whole ecosystem from the creatures they eat to the ones who eat them and so on up the line.

So I find it very difficult to feel sorry for the Adelie penguins or the soft-bodied benthic invertebrates mentioned in this article about the Antarctic Peninsula in American Scientist. The sea ice is retreating and in doing so favours Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins over the Adelie. The influx of predators such as the King Crab as the waters warm threatens the soft-bodied invertebrates. The invertebrates are soft-bodied because they evolved in an area where shell-cracking predators could not and so lost their shells. The population of Adelie penguins is falling while the invertebrates are under pressure.

Whatever the reasons for the retreating ice sheet (that's another days post!) the natural progression is that as the ecosystem changes the dominant species must adapt or move over. Here we have an example of a changing ecosystem and it's effect on the fauna. These changes cannot be described as being for the worst or for the best. They simply are.

Some will shout immediately for to make it a conservation area, to help the Adelie and protect the invertebrates. But that is preventing or skewing the natural progression of evolution. Because the ecosystem is unique, it's special; the hand of man should not set foot. But whether we like it or not humankind has already affected these creatures, Antarctica may seem remote but whaling in Japan or the North Sea still affects it. And has been affecting it for centuries.

Perhaps we should leave well enough alone and allow evolution to proceed. At least then the creatures that evolve may be able to cope with humankind and their effect on the environment.

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