Human influences on rates of phenotypic change in wild animal populations

Mol Ecol. 2008 Jan;17(1):20-9. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2007.03428.x.


Human activities can expose populations to dramatic environmental perturbations, which may then precipitate adaptive phenotypic change. We ask whether or not phenotypic changes associated with human-disturbed (anthropogenic) contexts are greater than those associated with more 'natural' contexts. Our meta-analysis is based on more than 3000 rates of phenotypic change in 68 'systems', each representing a given species in a particular geographical area. We find that rates of phenotypic change are greater in anthropogenic contexts than in natural contexts. This difference may be influenced by phenotypic plasticity - because it was evident for studies of wild-caught individuals (which integrate both genetic and plastic effects) but not for common-garden or quantitative genetic studies (which minimize plastic effects). We also find that phenotypic changes in response to disturbance can be remarkably abrupt, perhaps again because of plasticity. In short, humans are an important agent driving phenotypic change in contemporary populations. Although these changes sometimes have a genetic basis, our analyses suggest a particularly important contribution from phenotypic plasticity.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Biological / genetics*
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Animals
  • Databases, Factual
  • Environment*
  • Geography
  • Human Activities*
  • Humans
  • Phenotype*
  • Species Specificity