Researcher Laura van Holstein is a Ph.D. student in Biological Anthropology at St John’s College, University of Cambridge. She discovered that mammal subspecies play a prominent role in evolution than previously thought, therefore proving one of Darwin’s theories of evolution by natural selection for the first time since 1859. Van Holstein is the lead author of the research and published her findings in Proceedings of the Royal Society B on March 18
Charles Robert Darwin is best known for his Theory of Natural selection. According to Darwin all species of life gradually originated from common ancestors over time. This branching pattern of evolution resulted from a natural selection process often referred to as “The survival of the fittest“. In his book, On The Origin of Species, published in 1859, Darwin mentioned that the animal lineages with more species should also contain more “varieties”. “Varieties” are referred to as “Sub-species” in modern taxonomy
Taxonomy in a nutshell
To understand better, let’s take a quick look at taxonomy. Taxonomy is the science of naming, defining and classifying a group of biological organisms, living or extinct, based on shared characteristics or traits. The classification has eight hierarchical taxonomic categories: Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species. For example, the following is the classification of humans
- Domain: Eukaryota
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Class: Mammalia
- Order: Primates
- Family: Hominidae
- Genus: Homo
- Species: Homo sapiens
A species is a group of organisms that can interbreed among themselves. Some species like the red foxes have almost 45 subspecies within species. They differ from each other and exhibit their own physical characteristics or traits and breeding ranges. According to Van Holstein, investigating the relationship between species and the variety of subspecies proves that subspecies play a critical role in long-term evolutionary dynamics and future evolution of species.
Van Holstein’s research confirms Darwin’s hypothesis by analyzing the data gathered by naturalists over hundreds of years, long before Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species, was published. Subspecies form, diversify and increase in number in a different way in non-terrestrial and terrestrial habitats. This, in turn, affects how subspecies may eventually become species. A classic example is animals on Galapagos island. Isolated from the rest of the world by the ocean and they are in their own evolutionary journey
The research also confirms that subspecies can be considered as the initial stage in the formation of new species. This is referred to as speciation. However, considering the strength of the relationship between species richness and subspecies richness, evolution cannot be determined by the same factors in all groups
Her research can be vital to conservationists. To predict which species they should be focusing on protecting and stop them from becoming endangered or extinct. It also acts as a warning that the human impact on the animal’s habitat will not only affect them now but will affect their evolution too.
Van Holstein explained: “Evolutionary models could now use these findings to anticipate how human activities like logging and deforestation will affect evolution in the future by disrupting the habitat of species. The impact on animals will vary depending on how their ability to roam, or range, is affected. Animal subspecies tend to be ignored, but they play a pivotal role in longer-term future evolution dynamics.“
Van Holstein will focus on the usage of her findings to predict the rate of speciation from endangered species and non-endangered species. This information can be used by conservationists to help them determine where to focus their efforts.
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