From mosquitoes and rats to foxes and birds, the urban environment is transforming animals that live among us – but which new species should we expect next?
9 March 2022
TO THE naturalist in me, the world is full of sorrows: extinctions, the deaths of ancient forests, fires and floods. But the evolutionary biologist in me is more sanguine. The process of evolution continues unabated. If anything, humans have caused it to speed up.
Look closely enough and you can see a new world evolving around us. Witness it in the London Underground, where, beside the rumbling trains, a new species of mosquito is in the midst of an evolutionary flowering. And it is far from alone.
For centuries, evolutionary processes were thought to happen at a glacial pace compared with the speed of daily experience. However, over the past decades we have come to realise that evolution can in fact occur very quickly, even within days, as the virus that causes covid-19 has demonstrated. As I argue in my book, A Natural History of the Future, this evolution is occurring disproportionately fast in our cities.
These urban landscapes might seem a far cry from the Galapagos Islands and the other wild places where the rules of evolution were first uncovered, but no amount of environmental tinkering or destruction by humans can rewrite the rules of nature. And by considering the laws of evolution, we can make predictions about the kinds of new species that will emerge via the radical biological change taking place, mostly unnoticed, right under our noses.
We might have anticipated this rapid urban evolution a long time ago thanks to one of …