Forest Science for people and societal challenges The 90th “Marin Drăcea” INCDS Anniversary

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NATURE – within the G-BIKE project

Senior researcher I Dr. Ancuța Fedorca

Climate change is happening! Evolution to the rescue

Adaptation of life on earth to changing environments is facilitated by individual differences and shaped by natural selection. However, it turns out that we as humans have to adapt our strategies to monitor these differences in order to manage biological resources optimally.


If we want continued benefit from nature’s services, we had better keep an eye on all the raw materials and products of evolution.

Have you heard this story about a white moth species, the peppered moth, that adapted to dark backgrounds caused by factory exhaust during the Industrial Revolution? Tree lichens on which the moths would rest were killed by pollution, leaving only the dark tree bark. Gradually over several generations the moth’s wing colors changed from white to black, due to natural selection, as they were less conspicuous on the dark surfaces, evaded predation, and reproduced more. Moths of the initially rarer darker form were more difficult to spot by predatory birds on the dark bark and buildings in the cities, and survived better than the initially common white colored variants. The offspring of these dark survivors then increasingly outnumbered the white variants until the latter became a rarity. As this color trait is passed on from parents to offspring through genetic inheritance, it is based on genetic variation, the basis for variation among individuals within a species and the raw material for evolution.

Now imagine your favorite moth or butterfly species is facing climate change. How will it adapt to its changing environment, given that moths cannot directly regulate their body temperature, which fluctuates with the environment?

Exceedingly high temperatures can be deadly. As with the dark and white ‘color variants’, there are most likely also ‘temperature variants’, whereby some individuals can better resist high temperatures than others. These ‘hot-adapted’ variants are unlikely spread evenly across the species geographic range, but instead are most common in those areas that are currently already a somewhat hotter. So if researchers or managers want to find these heat-resistant variants, they should focus on these climatically ‘marginal’ areas that are already relatively hot currently.

A group of biologists, geneticists and practitioners have just shown in an article in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution that current schemes to monitor genetic variation often overlook these marginal areas, especially in southeastern Europe.

The authors call for better monitoring of all the variation available in a species, including the genetic variation in marginal areas that will allow future adaptation to warming climate, much as the existence of dark variants allowed peppered moths to adapt to darkening surfaces

Such broad-based monitoring will enable better prediction of the effects of climate change on species chances of survival, and provide valuable information for improving their conservation management. In the end, that can help your favorite species survive the heat.

You say you don’t have a favorite butterfly or moth? Then just imagine any other animal or plant species, because most of them also rely on genetic variation in order to adapt to changing circumstances, including those species that provide invaluable services to humans, like pollination of crops and control of pests.

So, the paper’s authors say it is in our own interest to optimally monitor and conserve the genetic variation in populations, which is an essential component of biodiversity.

The publication was made possible thanks to the European COST Action G-BiKE ( and involved data from numerous species across Europe. The study incorporated the efforts of 52 scientists who represent 60 universities and research institutes from 31 countries.

The publication, which appeared online on January 15, 2024, was dedicated to Professor Mike Bruford, the lead author and a renowned geneticist who has worked on conservation projects worldwide. He has been involved in case studies that have informed conservation policy and has contributed to action plans for protecting species and habitats.

The article’s author in English: Peter Galbusera.

The translation: Lavinia Ifrim.