Three responses to change – the genetic approach

Evolutionary Biologists tell us that living things have three genetic responses to significant changes in their environment.

  1. They can remain unchanged and not survive.
  2. They can change and but not survive.
  3. They can change and survive.

We see this in the natural world as it responds to the changing climate. For example:

  1. Unchanged and not survive: The Bramble Cay Melomys (Melomys rubicola) is a small rodent likely to be the world’s first mammal casualty of climate change. It once lived on a single island in the eastern Torres Strait of the Great Barrier Reef. It lost about 97 percent of its habitat due to rising sea levels and recently seems to have disappeared.
  2. Change but not survive: The red knot (Calidris canutus), migrates to Australia in the northern winter, is producing smaller offspring to better regulate its body heat in an increasingly warming climate. Unfortunately this also reduces their chicks’ ability to forage for food and therefore decreases their chance of survival. So while one genetic change is appropriate for a particular shift in the environment, it could be placing the whole species at a greater risk of extinction. We’re not yet sure if the red knot is changing for the better or worse. We’ll have to wait and see.
  3. Change and survive: As we mentioned in our last article, a British species of peppered moth changed its wings from white to black to better camouflage itself on the sooty trees during the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century.

These are responses on a grand scale where a whole population, even an entire species, are impacted by changes in the environment.

When a species does change, it’s not consciously done, but rather it’s because the surviving individuals pass on those genetic changes to help them survive (or not).

It led me to think about how we as individuals respond to change in our lives.

And even on a more conceptual level, how does an Evolutionary Biologist and an Artist deal with challenges in their research and creative process? What are the experiences and the resulting learnings that help us survive and thrive? And what happens if we remain unchanged?

We’ll explore this idea in our next article. Subscribe to this blog and watch this space.


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