Eco-evolutionary conservation biology: contemporary evolution and the dynamics of persistence


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  • 1Natural and human mediated perturbations present challenges to the fate of populations but fuel contemporary evolution (evolution over humanly observable time-scales). Here we ask if such evolution is sufficient to make the difference between population extinction and persistence.
  • 2To answer this question requires a shift from the usual focus on trait evolution to the emergent ‘eco-evolutionary’ dynamics that arise through interactions of evolution, its fitness consequences and population abundance.
  • 3By combining theory, models and insights from empirical studies of contemporary evolution, we provide an assessment of three contexts: persistence of populations in situ, persistence of colonising populations, and persistence under gene flow and in metapopulations.
  • 4Contemporary evolution can likely rescue some, but not all, populations facing environmental change. Populations may fail partly because of the demographic cost of selection.
  • 5Contemporary evolution that initiates positive population growth, such as selective founding processes, may create a ‘persistence vortex’ that overcomes the problems of small populations.
  • 6Complex, even shifting, relationships between gene flow and adaptation may aid the persistence of subpopulations as well as the persistence and expansion of metapopulations.
  • 7An eco-evolutionary perspective suggests that we expand our focus beyond the acute problems of threatened populations and growing invasions, to consider how contemporary evolutionary mechanics contribute to such problems in the first place or affect their resolution.