It’s no secret that our beloved planet is undergoing some serious changes and most likely is in such great peril that only a time machine could alleviate the consequences.
We have managed to conquer and groom the wild life that was once so prevalent. Mother Nature is buckling under the pressure, and she’ll bring us all down with her if we don’t act drastically.
Our explosive world population is putting tremendous strain on the environment. There are over 7 billion people living worldwide and no indications that the growing population will be shrinking anytime soon. From the cars we drive to the industrially farmed meat we eat, we rely on the burning of oil, coal, and gas every single day. Humans release more than 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air annually. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane trap heat in the atmosphere, causing global warming, loss of sea ice, sea level rise, stronger storms, and severe droughts—otherwise known as climate change.
Rapid climate change is so effective it’s even causing evolution in poorly adapted animals such as the great tit (Parus major), a type of bird. Evolution takes an extremely long time (around 1 million years), so the discovery that a poorly adapted population of birds has evolved over the course of just 47 years is a huge freaking deal in the science world.
In their 2008 Science magazine report scientists Charmantier, McCleery, Cole, Perrins, Kruuk, and Sheldon discuss how individual adjustment of behavior in response to the environment has enabled a population of the great tit to track a rapidly changing environment very closely.
So what’s happening? Phenotypic plasticity: environmentally influenced variation in the phenotype (the visual or functional appearance of a specific gene, i.e. brown eyes) associated with a genotype (specific gene code, i.e. code for brown eyes) allows organisms the potential to react promptly and effectively to drastic environmental changes.
A change in the average date of breeding over time has been observed in the great tit of Oxford as well as populations of different species (meaning that climate change is also causing evolution in other organisms besides birds). The average egg-laying date of female great tits has advanced by two weeks in the last forty-seven years. Warming temperatures have caused the birds to develop phenotypic plasticity in the form of advancing the time of year they lay eggs. Over the course of this nearly five-decade study, there has been a significant and continuous increase of pre-laying temperatures due to climate change.
So big whoop. What’s the big deal about some birds laying their eggs two weeks early? The big deal is that climate change is so impactful it is causing unearthly fast evolution. This is not to say that climate change is some new and innovative phenomenon that will eventually allow humans to evolve speedily, but rather these findings indicate that climate change is so powerful it is affecting us both today and tomorrow. Although it may be quite possible for phenotypic plasticity to occur in humans, we will never be able to adapt to climate change as quickly as the great tit has. The time it would take us to evolve and advance enough biologically to think ourselves out of the catastrophe of climate change is millions and millions of years. The best we can do for now is keep one another informed and adopt behaviors that don’t contribute to the problem.
97% of climate scientists agree that climate change is caused by man-made pollution. Climate change is well and alive—scientists know it and so do the birds.