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Islands as natural laboratories for evolution

Islands are natural laboratories where we can study evolution in vivo. Whether from volcanic or continental origin, the fact that islands being isolated from the mainland by the sea makes that island biota present spectacular adaptations, sometimes originating giant or dwarf species in comparison with their mainland relatives. In this article, we describe the evolutionary mechanisms behind this phenomenon and talk about some striking examples.

Islands can have a volcanic origin, involving the emergence of virgin lands that will be colonized involving new adaptations to the new conditions. Islands can also have a continental origin, involving the separation of the mainland by tectonic processes and isolation of fauna and flora before connected.

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Volcanic conus aspect in Hawaii. Source: Steve Juverston, via Flickr.

EVOLUTION MECHANISMS ACTING IN ISLANDS

Generation of new species caused by the emergence of a geographic barrier, such as the emergence of a range, changes in sea level or emergence of new islands by tectonic movements is a process known as allopatric speciation and is the main process acting on islands. We can described two kinds of allopatric speciation:

  1. Vicariant speciation: when two populations are separated by a geographic barrier, for example when a piece of land separated from the mainland. An example is the island of Madagascar, that when separated from Africa left the biota of the island isolated from the continent by the sea.
  2. Peripatric speciation: a new population establishes and gets isolated in a new environment by a very small number of individuals from a larger population. This is the case of the colonization of a sterile land, such as oceanic islands. In this case, the individuals that colonize the new environment may not represent the genetic pool of the original population and with time and reproductive isolation; may originate a new species (founder effect).

The great British naturalist and creator of the theory of evolution, Charles Darwin, insipirated on their findings into the volcanic archipelago of the Galapagos to develop his great theory, paradigm of modern science.

Oceanic islands are formed by exploding volcanoes or movements of the mid-ocean ridge. Due to this volcanic activity, groups of islands are formed, each island having its own history, climate, topography and geology. This creates a perfect scenário to observe how evolution works because each population reaching a new island is affected by different environmental pressures and may never come in contact again with other islands populations, forming unique species, endemic to each island. Many naturalists and scientists have studied the evolution in vivo in volcanic origin archipelagos such as the Hawaiian Islands, Seychelles, Mascarene Islands, Juan Fernandez archipelago or Canary Islands. One of the last islands appeared in the Atlantic Ocean is the Suerty Island, emerged at 1963 30 km southwards of Iceland. Since then, life advent has been studied to understand ecological and evolutionary mechanisms acting in island colonization.

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Suerty Island in eruption, in the south of Island. Source: Wikimedia.

ISLANDS ADAPTATIONS: GIGANTISM AND WOODINESS

Often oceanic islands, present no predators and this triggers the appearance of very curious adaptations. One of the most surprising processes is gigantism in animals or woodiness acquisition in plants.

Woodiness acquisition in islands by herbaceous plants on the continent has been documented in several families and islands around the world. The cause of this phenomenon would be the absence of herbivores and competitors in sterile islands, which would allow developing a greater height willing to reach sunlight.

For example, in Hawaii we found the alliance of the Hawaiian silverswords. It comprises 28 species in three genus (Argyroxiphium, Dubautia and Wilkesia), all woody members of the Asteraceae family or sunflowers. Their closest relatives are perennial herbs in North America.

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Hawaiian silversword aspect from Argyroxiphium genus (left) and their closest relatives in mainland (right), from Raillardella genus. Source: Wikimedia.

In the Canary Islands, there are many examples of this phenomenon. Echium genus of Boraginaceae or borage and forget-me-not family contains about 60 species, of which 27 are located in different islands of volcanic origin in the Macaronesia (Canary Islands, Madeira and Cape Verde). Almost all members of this genus found in Macaronesia are bushes, forming an inflorescence that can reach up to three meters high, being the symbol of the Teide National Park (called tajinastes) while his nearby relatives are Eurasians herbs such as blueweed (Echium vulgare).

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Echium wildpretii (left) in Tenerife and one of its closest relative from mainland (Echium vulgare) on the right. Source: Wikimedia.

Also in the Macaronesia, we find another example in the Euphorbiaceae family. Euphorbia mellifera, endemic to the Canary Islands and Madeira and E. stygiana endemic to Azores are endangered or critically endangered trees according to the IUCN, which can grow up to 15 meters high, being part of the laurisilva vegetation, a subtropical humid forest typical from Macaronesia. Their nearest relatives are Mediterranean herbaceous species.

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Euphorbia mellifera in Maderia (left) and one of his closest relatives from the Mediterraneum basin (right, E. palustris). Source: left Laia Barres González and right Wikimedia.

In the animal kingdom, we also find peculiar adaptations. Herbivorous inhabiting islands usually have no predators or competitors, triggering appearance of larger species than in the mainland, where large carnivores avoid this characteristics incompatibles with hiding or escaping.

One of the most famous examples of island gigantism are the Galapagos giant tortoises (Chelonoidis nigra complex), including about 10 different species, many endemic to a single island of the archipelago. This turtles are the most long-lived and largest in the world. They can reach two meters in length and 450 kg in weight and can live more than 100 years.

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Galapagos giant tourtle. Source: Wikipedia.

Also among the reptiles, there are the Gallotia giant lizards of the Canary Islands. There are several single island endemic species: G. auaritae in La Palma, believed extinct until the discovery of several individuals in 2007, G. bravoana in La Gomera, G. intermedia in Tenerife, G. simonyi in El Hierro and G. stehlini in Gran Canaria, among others. Among the giant lizards of the Canary Islands there is the extinct Gallotia goliath, reaching up to 1 m length and currently being included in the G. simony circumscription.

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Gallotia stehlini in Gran Canaria. Source: El coleccionista de instantes Fotografía & Vídeo via Flickr.

Another example is Flores island in Indonesia, where we found a giant rat (Papagomys armandvillei) doubling the common rat in size. Interestingly, hominid fossils having experiences the contrary process were also found in this island, since it was dwarf primate compared to the Homo sapiens current size. It is Homo floresiensis, who was only 1 meter tall and weighed 25 kg. It became extinct about 50,000 years and coexisted with Homo sapiens.

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Giant rat (Papagomys armandvillei) from Flores. Source: Wikimedia.

Dwarfism is another evolutionary process that may occur on islands caused by the lack of resources in some islands, compared to mainland.

Unfortunately, islands holds a peculiar and unique biota that is suffering from of exploitation and extinction. The islands conservation biology helps to understand and preserve this natural heritage so rich and unique.

Laia-anglès

REFERENCES

Barahona, F.; Evans, S. E.; Mateo, J.A.; García-Márquez, M. & López-Jurado, L.F. 2000. Endemism, gigantism and extinction in island lizards: the genus Gallotia on the Canary Islands. Journal of Zoology 250: 373-388.

Böhle, U.R., Hilger, H.H. & Martin, W.F. 2001. Island colonization and evolution of the insular woody habit in Echium L. (Boraginaceae). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 93: 11740-11745.

Carlquist, S.J. 1974. Island biology. New York: Columbia University Press.

 Foster, J.B. 1964. The evolution of mammals on islands. Nature 202: 234–235.

Whittaker, R.J. & Fernández-Palacios, J.M. 2007. Island biogeography: ecology, evolution, and conservation, 2nd edn. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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