Fold mountains

Mountains determine pace of evolution, not climate change, scientists say

Charles Darwin noted the evolutionary impact of geographic barriers when he observed the varying size and shape of finches on the Galapagos Islands.

The physical barrier divides habitats and prevents animals from mixing and mating, which accelerates the evolution and emergence of new species.

“Often on top of mountains there are many other unique species that are not found elsewhere,” said Dr Andrew Tanentzap of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences and lead author of the article.

“While previously it was thought that the formation of new species was due to climate, we found that elevation change has a larger effect globally.”

Dr Javier Igea, also from the aforementioned Cambridge department, and first author of the article, added: “It is surprising how much the historic elevation change has affected the creation of global biodiversity.

“This was much more important than the traditionally studied variables like temperature. The speed at which species evolved in different places on Earth is closely related to changes in topography over millions of years.

“This work highlights important arenas for the evolution to play. From a conservation perspective, these are the places we might want to protect, especially given climate change.

“Although climate change occurs over decades, not millions of years, our study indicates areas that may support species with greater evolutionary potential.”