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article imageClimate Change Shifts Sheep Shape

By Tea Lulic     Mar 19, 2007 in Environment
Scientists believe that climate change could have an impact on animal evolution and ecology.
A 20 year Scottish sheep study, which was conducted on Soay sheep on the island of Hirta, showed that weather patterns were changing the body size and population size.
So what exactly happened? Harsh winters increased the size of the sheep.
How do we know this is because of the weather? Because in milder temperatures this was not the case.
"Until now, it has proven really quite difficult to show how ecology and evolutionary change are linked, but we have developed a way to tie them together," said Tim Coulson, an author of the paper and a scientist at Imperial College London.
The sheep that have been studied were previously examined in enormous detail. The data that was looked at came from 1985 until today. Scientists examined sheep population sizes and body measurements.
"To determine how ecology influences evolution and vice versa, an important step is to be able to see how population dynamics are influenced by traits such as body size or eye colour that are, in part, controlled by genes."
So what happened? When sheep gained in size, the population tended to decrease. Scientists think that this is probably because of reproductive success. However, scientists have also discovered that the sheep size has changed based on the environment.
"We used a measure of how bad the winters were in Scotland, and this has been changing over the duration of the study," said Dr Coulson.
Analyzing the research from 1980s, scientists have noticed that, because of harsh winters, larger size sheep were favored.
"But over the years, winters have been getting a little bit better; and as winters have got better, we have found there is not as much natural selection for large animals as we saw in the past, as there is less advantage to being big."
Scientists have concluded that environmental factors affect evolution and biology of these animals. They also mentioned that as winters became warmer, the sheep sizes will get smaller, making the population more stable.
"People have argued for a long time that climate change is leaving an ecological legacy, but we have shown it will leave an evolutionary legacy too," he added.
I would like to thank geozone for leading me towards this story. It is a very important issue because of the big climate shift that we are experiencing right now. This is important scientific evidence which blatantly points out that climate change does and will affect animal biology and population size in the future. Maybe we should be worried about this. What do you think?
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