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Nature under the influence

Nature under the influence
Credit: Rashid Valitov
Nature under the influence
Nature under the influence

We often tend to think that species evolve without any influence from humankind. In fact the opposite is true: since many of our actions alter the environment, they necessarily also affect the way plants and animals adapt to these changes. Humans have also forced different plants to reproduce with each other so as to create new ones. Here we describe two examples of human impacts on the evolutionary process.

Selection and hybridization

People have been selecting plants since time immemorial, and especially since the birth of agriculture. By choosing specimens with the most attractive characteristics (size of their fruit or ears, yield, height, etc.), growers slowly but surely transformed certain plants to meet their needs.

In the late 19th century, we began using a technique we call hybridization. By breeding two plants from different varieties, subspecies, species or even genera, we have sought to create a hybrid combining their most desirable features.

This technique has allowed us to improve plants’ yield, taste, protein content or storage time, depending on the use for which they are intended. We can also try to create trees and other plants with greater climate, disease and pest resistance.

Hybridization has been used to produce many cultivars of corn, for instance, but also fruit like ‘Empire’ apples, a cross between ‘McIntosh’ and ‘Red Delicious’ varieties, or tangelos, combining mandarin oranges and grapefruit, and triticale, a cross between wheat and rye. This technique has proved very useful in horticulture, too, for transforming many ornamental plants like orchids, begonias and roses. When it comes to these plants, hybridization is so common that it’s not unusual to find plants resulting from multiple hybridizations.

Greater snow geese

Sometimes our actions have unexpected – and positive – repercussions.

A century ago, there were about 3,000 greater snow geese. By 1998, their population had soared to at least 800,000. What was behind this phenomenal growth? Well, for once, humans can take the credit!

Three main factors led to this success in conserving the species. The creation of bird sanctuaries and restrictions on hunting had significant results. But it was mainly the changes in their diet along their migration routes that were responsible for this tremendous avian baby boom.

Starting in the 1970s, the spread of large monoculture crops changed the birds’ dietary habits. Up until then, they had fed mainly on the roots of aquatic plants that they pulled from the thick mud of marshes with their powerful, pointed beaks.

They now gather in fields to gorge on waste oats, corn and soy and graze on grass and clover. By feeding on these highly nutritious plants along their up to 4,000-km-long journey, they arrive at their destination fatter and stronger. This in turn improves their chances of survival and reproduction.

In fact, the greater snow goose population exploded to such an extent that they became overabundant, damaging some arctic habitats. To solve this problem, hunting restrictions were eased. Their numbers stand at about 700,000 today.

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