The cane toads go bump in the night. I hear them banging as they misjudge where my hotel door ends and the forest begins. The force of a large toad knocking wood is substantial. But the force with which the toads, which are native to Central America, have hit Australia is even greater. Brought to Queensland in 1935 to combat beetles infesting sugarcane fields, the toads have spread out from their point of entry like the shock waves of a bomb, warty legs and oversize tongues jettisoned into every conceivable ecological crack.
Recent research by Ben Phillips and his collaborators at the University of Sydney has shown that the toads are evolving as they spread, perfecting their ability to adapt to the Australian landscape. The toads at the front edge of the invasion now have smaller bodies, reduced toxicity and relatively longer legs, apparently because individuals with those traits were having greater success. The native fauna has evolved in response: the mouths of some snake species are getting smaller, for instance, because so many of the snakes with big mouths were eating the poisonous cane toads and dying off.
Such examples are changing scientists’ views of the speed of evolution. The process was long considered to be slow, even lumbering. Increasingly, though, researchers are observing evolution in action. You may be familiar with the examples of the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria or agricultural pests. Microbes and pests may change the fastest, but they are not unique.
We see rapid evolution most often where some force (often us) has given it a jump start by suddenly and dramatically altering an organism’s environment. Rats have developed smaller bodies when introduced to islands. Trophy fish have also adopted smaller body sizes in response to fishers’ preference for big fish (which, if killed, do not breed). Mayflies in streams where trout were released now forage at night to avoid the fast-swimming predators. Many hundreds of herbivorous species have switched to novel, sometimes toxic, food sources introduced by humans and have come to specialize in consuming those new resources. Various native species have evolved in response to newly arrived competitors. Cedar trees have begun making toxins to protect themselves from being eaten by deer now roaming in their formerly benign habitats. Mussels in New England have evolved the ability to detect invasive green crabs and produce thicker shells where the crabs are present.
Most of these changes appear to have resulted from natural selection: organisms that by chance had some genetic trait that helped them thrive in the face of a new stress were favored, and subsequently they reproduced successfully and spread the helpful trait to future generations. But some evolutionary changes we see may simply be the result of genetic drift (random genetic changes that accrue over time).
The more we look, the more we can observe evolutionary changes that are fast enough to be seen during the course of a single study. A Ph.D. student might, in the five or so years of a dissertation project, realistically see the development of new species, whether in real time or using genetic tools to reconstruct evolutionary history. As house mice and rats have spread with us around the world, they have speciated into forms best adapted to the different regions where they live. In the northeastern U.S., a species of fly has evolved to feed on a species of honeysuckle introduced to North America less than 250 years ago. Although the new fly is a hybrid between two existing species, it can mate with neither one and maintains viable populations of its own.
People tend to imagine evolution as acting only on long-extinct creatures such as the dinosaurs, but the flensing knives of natural selection and the random pushes and pulls of genetic drift are still at work today. We see a red oak tree in our backyard or a cane toad at our hotel-room door, but the names fool us. These species are not the same this year and next. Although the evolution we observe in real time will not suddenly give us dinosaurs, it is still a process to be reckoned with. Give natural selection a few individuals of any species, and it will work the same way in a waste pool as it does in Yellowstone National Park. Nature abhors a vacuum, but nearly anything else will do.
This article was originally published with the title Our Evolving Present.