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What influences evolutionary winners and losers?

15 April 2011

Scientists have examined 65 million years of evidence to discover what factors influence evolution.

Researchers from Cardiff University and Imperial College London examined marine plankton, called foraminifera, providing them with an unparalleled fossil record showing 65 million years of evolution.

Tracy Aze, of Cardiff University’s School of Earth and Ocean Sciences explains: "Importantly this fossil record has recorded what happens to the foraminifera in terms of diversity and abundance across an extensive period of time when environmental conditions in the oceans were very different to our modern oceans."

The research co-authored by Tracy Aze and Professor Paul Pearson at Cardiff University and Dr Thomas Ezard and Professor Andy Purvis, Imperial College London is published in the journal Science (April 14). The research disputes a well established theory that the probability of extinction in groups of organisms is constant and not dependent on age. Instead the researchers found that species are more likely to become extinct if they are "older". They also found that the emergence of new species is more likely to occur early on in the lifetime of pre-existing ancestor species.

The research, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), addressed evolutionary questions dating from both Darwin and his contemporary Wallace. It looked at how competition between species that were alive at the same time and environmental change influenced the extinction and emergence of new species. Darwin thought that environment played a more important role in natural selection whilst Wallace thought that interactions between species were more dominant.

By incorporating detailed information about species ecologies the study empirically demonstrated that both sets of factors are important in shaping the evolution of a group.

Tracy Aze at Cardiff University said: "If we are to attempt to conserve global biodiversity and maintain global ocean ecosystems we need to understand how organisms respond to environmental change

"Our research has shown that extinction is more strongly influenced by changes in the environment, while the emergence of new species – known as speciation – is more strongly influenced by the interactions between species."


Notes to editors

1. The research paper ‘Interplay Between Changing Climate and Species' Ecology Drives Macroevolutionary Dynamics’ is published in the Journal Science (April 14).

Cardiff University
Cardiff University is recognised in independent government assessments as one of Britain’s leading teaching and research universities and is a member of the Russell Group of the UK’s most research intensive universities. Among its academic staff are two Nobel Laureates, including the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine, University President Professor Sir Martin Evans.

Founded by Royal Charter in 1883, today the University combines impressive modern facilities and a dynamic approach to teaching and research. The University’s breadth of expertise in research and research-led teaching encompasses: the humanities; the natural, physical, health, life and social sciences; engineering and technology; preparation for a wide range of professions; and a longstanding commitment to lifelong learning. Three major new Research Institutes, offering radical new approaches to neurosciences and mental health, cancer stem cells and sustainable places were announced by the University in 2010.



About Imperial College London

Consistently rated amongst the world's best universities, Imperial College London is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 14,000 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality. Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and business, delivering practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture.

Since its foundation in 1907, Imperial's contributions to society have included the discovery of penicillin, the development of holography and the foundations of fibre optics . This commitment to the application of research for the benefit of a all continues today, with current focuses including interdisciplinary collaborations to improve global health, tackle climate change, develop sustainable sources of energy and address security challenges.

In 2007, Imperial College London and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust formed the UK's first Academic Health Science Centre. This unique partnership aims to improve the quality of life of patients and populations by taking new discoveries and translating them into new therapies as quickly as possible.




For more information contact

Tracy Aze

School of Earth and Ocean Sciences

Cardiff University

Tel 02920 874573


Emma Darling

Public Relations

Cardiff University

Tel: 029 20874499