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Ancient geographic isolation shaped the global evolution of mammals

Why do koalas live in Australia while squirrels dominate similar climates in North America? A new study led by Michigan State University highlights the crucial role of ancient geographic isolation in the evolution of mammals across the globe.

The findings offer a deeper understanding of biodiversity and carry important implications for conservation efforts.

What is geographic isolation?

Geographic isolation occurs when physical barriers such as mountains, rivers, or oceans divide a population of organisms into separate groups, preventing individuals from different groups from mating with each other.

Over time, this lack of genetic exchange leads to the development of distinct species as each isolated population adapts to its own unique environment, undergoes genetic drift, or experiences different mutations.

Geographic isolation is a key mechanism of allopatric speciation, where new species evolve in different geographical locations.

This process plays a crucial role in biodiversity by contributing to the differentiation and evolution of species across the Earth’s landscapes.

The role of evolution

The Earth’s crust is divided into several large and small tectonic plates that float on the semi-fluid asthenosphere beneath.

Over millions of years, the movement of these plates has caused the continents to drift apart, collide, and even fracture, leading to the formation of mountains, oceans, and other geographical features.

This process, known as plate tectonics, is a key driver of the Earth’s dynamism and has profound implications for its biological diversity, especially the evolution of mammalian life.

The ancient splits and rearrangements of continents have significantly influenced the distribution and evolution of mammals.

“Today’s ecology was not inevitable. If there were different isolating factors long ago, we might have vastly different ecosystems today,” said Peter Williams, the lead researcher behind the study.

The importance of ancient isolation

We know that environment plays a massive role in shaping the creatures around us. For example, polar bears with their thick white fur, perfectly adapted to their icy Arctic home.

But Williams and his team highlight a less obvious factor that’s been at play across the millennia: isolation.

Australia, for example, has been an island continent for millions of years. This isolation is why it’s packed with marsupials like koalas and kangaroos, while the rest of the world has mainly placental mammals like squirrels and deer.

Even those continents that may have similar climates today were once worlds apart in terms of mammal diversity.

Response to geographic isolation

The study found that different types of mammals responded very differently to these geographical barriers. Let’s look at three key players:

Mammals (minus bats) 

These were heavily influenced by Earth’s shifting landmasses. Millions of years ago, continents were like giant life rafts, each carrying a unique set of mammals.

As they drifted apart, the mammals on board evolved separately.

Over immense stretches of time, these populations would become as distinct from each other as koalas, with their specialized eucalyptus diet, are from agile tree-climbing squirrels.


Birds tell a different story. Their ability to fly means they could overcome those land barriers way more easily. Think of a barn swallow that migrates vast distances.

This constant mixing across continents means that bird communities worldwide are more alike than mammals, strongly influenced by things like climate and not so much by ancient geography.


Bats are the only flying mammals, and their story is unique. Unlike most other mammals, bats couldn’t easily cross cold regions like the ancient land bridge that once connected Alaska and Siberia.

This meant bats on different sides of the globe remained isolated for a very long time. It’s why we have unique species like vampire bats in the Americas and fish-eating bats in Southeast Asia.

Why does geographic isolation matter?

Understanding how millions of years of isolation have shaped life on Earth has some pretty big implications for our world today.

“By understanding how historical isolation has shaped biodiversity, we can gain valuable insights into the delicate balance of ecosystems and develop strategies for protecting biodiversity in regions with unique evolutionary histories,” said Williams.

This research reminds us that the world wasn’t always as interconnected as it is now. The researchers are keen to continue exploring how these ancient events have molded the amazing variety of life around us.

Study co-author Elise Zipkin noted: “In ecology, even hyperlocal problems need to incorporate regional, continental or even global processes.”

It’s a great reminder that our planet has a fascinating and complex history, and the ripples of events from millions of years ago are still felt in the ecosystems we encounter today.

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.


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