Does rapid evolution matter? Measuring the rate of contemporary evolution and its impacts on ecological dynamics



Ecology Letters (2011) 14: 603–614


Rapid contemporary evolution due to natural selection is common in the wild, but it remains uncertain whether its effects are an essential component of community and ecosystem structure and function. Previously we showed how to partition change in a population, community or ecosystem property into contributions from environmental and trait change, when trait change is entirely caused by evolution (Hairston et al. 2005). However, when substantial non-heritable trait change occurs (e.g. due to phenotypic plasticity or change in population structure) that approach can mis-estimate both contributions. Here, we demonstrate how to disentangle ecological impacts of evolution vs. non-heritable trait change by combining our previous approach with the Price Equation. This yields a three-way partitioning into effects of evolution, non-heritable phenotypic change and environment. We extend the approach to cases where ecological consequences of trait change are mediated through interspecific interactions. We analyse empirical examples involving fish, birds and zooplankton, finding that the proportional contribution of rapid evolution varies widely (even among different ecological properties affected by the same trait), and that rapid evolution can be important when it acts to oppose and mitigate phenotypic effects of environmental change. Paradoxically, rapid evolution may be most important when it is least evident.