Fates beyond traits: ecological consequences of human-induced trait change

Evol Appl. 2012 Feb;5(2):183-91. doi: 10.1111/j.1752-4571.2011.00212.x. Epub 2011 Oct 28.


Human-induced trait change has been documented in freshwater, marine, and terrestrial ecosystems worldwide. These trait changes are driven by phenotypic plasticity and contemporary evolution. While efforts to manage human-induced trait change are beginning to receive some attention, managing its ecological consequences has received virtually none. Recent work suggests that contemporary trait change can have important effects on the dynamics of populations, communities, and ecosystems. Therefore, trait changes caused by human activity may be shaping ecological dynamics on a global scale. We present evidence for important ecological effects associated with human-induced trait change in a variety of study systems. These effects can occur over large spatial scales and impact system-wide processes such as trophic cascades. Importantly, the magnitude of these effects can be on par with those of traditional ecological drivers such as species presence. However, phenotypic change is not always an agent of ecological change; it can also buffer ecosystems against change. Determining the conditions under which phenotypic change may promote vs prevent ecological change should be a top research priority.

Keywords: conservation; contemporary evolution; eco-evolutionary dynamics; evolutionary impact assessment; fisheries-induced evolution; habitat fragmentation; harvest; phenotypic plasticity.