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Scientists once believed that evolutionary processes could take place over tens of millions of years – but new evidence suggests that dramatic changes can happen in some species almost overnight.
As their forest habitats are increasingly taken over by expanding cities, lizards in Puerto Rico have been developing surprising new physical features to deal with the new environment.
Kristin Winchell, a professor of biology at New York University in the US, says in new research that “we are watching evolution as it’s unfolding” in the Puerto Rican crested anole.
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Professor Winchell is the lead author on a new study published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
She explains that the crested anole ( Anolis cristatellus ) has developed a new type of scale that helps it cling to the smoother surfaces, such as walls and windows, found in towns and cities and it has also started growing longer, more powerful legs that let it dash across open areas without being caught by predators.
Winchell’s team found that the changes were happening at the genetic level, with over 30 genes within the Anolis cristatellus genome being definitively associated with urbanisation.
“If urban populations are evolving with parallel physical and genomic changes,” she said, “we may even be able to predict how populations will respond to urbanisation just by looking at genetic markers”.
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Each lizard lives an average of seven years, and the changes have been tracked across a period of 30 to 70 generations.
Winches described how her team captured almost a hundred lizards for their research, catching them with their hands or using fishing poles with a tiny lasso to snag them. “It takes some practice!” she joked
But the team’s effort has paid off, with the research paper drawing admiration from fellow-scientists.
Wouter Halfwerk, an evolutionary ecologist and professor at Vrije University Amsterdam, has said “you can hardly get closer to a smoking gun” when it comes to identifying evolution in action.
“The ultimate goal within the field of urban adaptive evolution is to find evidence for heritable traits and their genomic architecture,” he added, and he said Winchell’s team had achieved that.
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