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Elevation changes affect the speed of evolution

New research from the University of Cambridge modeled how the Earth’s surface has changed over the last three million years. This data was combined with climate data and the number of species of birds and mammals. The research showed that speciation, or the production of new species, speeds up when elevation increases. A similar decrease in elevation seems to have no effect on species – in these cases, climate plays more of a role in speciation. 

“Often at the tops of mountains there are many more unique species that aren’t found elsewhere. Whereas previously the formation of new species was thought to be driven by climate, we’ve found that elevation change has a greater effect at a global scale,” explained study senior author Dr. Andrew Tanentzap.

Although scientists have long theorized that mountains played a role in biodiversity and speciation, the degree to which this study confirmed this idea is incredible.

“It’s surprising just how much effect historical elevation change had on generating the world’s biodiversity – it has been much more important than traditionally studied variables like temperature,” said study first author Dr. Javier Igea.

“The rate at which species evolved in different places on Earth is tightly linked to topography changes over millions of years. This work highlights important arenas for evolution to play out.”

“From a conservation perspective these are the places we might want to protect, especially given climate change. Although climate change is happening over decades, not millions of years, our study points to areas that can harbor species with greater potential to evolve.”

The research is the first of its kind to look at how mountain formation has historically impacted speciation on a global scale. Other studies were focused on the present day or on a specific mountain range. This research pieces the whole world together, showing us another way that stunning life has evolved and giving us perhaps one more tool to protect that biodiversity. 

The study is published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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