Experimental studies of evolution in guppies: a model for understanding the evolutionary consequences of predator removal in natural communities


David N. Reznick, Fax: 951 827 4286; E-mail: david.reznick@ucr.edu


Guppies (Poecilia reticulata) in Trinidadian streams are found with a diversity of predators in the lower reaches of streams, but few predators in the headwaters. These differences have caused the adaptive evolution of guppy behaviour, morphology, male colouration and life history. Waterfalls often serve as barriers to the upstream distribution of predators and/or guppies. Such discontinuities make it possible to treat streams like giant test tubes by introducing guppies or predators to small segments of streams from which they were previously excluded. Such experiments enable us to document how fast evolution can occur and the fine spatial scales over which adaptation is possible. They also demonstrate that the role predators play in structuring this ecosystem resembles many others studied from a more purely ecological perspective; in these streams, as elsewhere, predators depress the numbers of individuals in prey species which in turn reduces the effects of the prey species on other trophic levels and hence the structure of the ecosystem. A focus on predators is important in conservation biology because predators are often the organisms that are most susceptible to local extinction. Their selective loss occurs because large predators have been deliberately exterminated and/or are more susceptible to environmental disturbances. Furthermore, we will argue that predator re-introductions might be destabilizing if, in the absence of predators, their prey have evolved in a fashion that makes them highly susceptible to predation, even after time intervals as short as 50–100 years. A better understanding of the evolutionary impacts of top predators will be critical goal for the policy and practice of large carnivore restoration in the future.