Damselflies are rapidly evolving in response to global warming

April 30 (UPI) — Damselflies are rapidly evolving in response to climate change, new research shows, experimenting with genetic adaptations as temperatures continue to rise.

“Genes that influence heat tolerance, physiology, and even vision are giving them evolutionary options to help them cope with climate change,” Rachael Dudaniec, a researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, said in a news release. “Other insects may not be so lucky.”

To measure the damselfly’s response to climate change, Dudaniec and her colleagues tracked genetic variations among blue-tailed damselfly, or Ischnura elegans, populations in Sweden.

At different points in a species’ genome, a population will feature several different gene variants, or allele. Allele frequency describes the distribution of variants among a population. In the latest study, scientists looked at the shift in allele distribution as they surveyed populations from north to south in Sweden.

“We examined the degree of turnover from one variant of a gene to another variant,” said Rachael. “For example, how strongly does one variant of a gene change to another variant as you move to higher latitudes.”

In addition to latitude, scientists looked for relationships between allele frequency trends and summertime highs, summertime precipitation and local wind patterns.

As conditions change, the gene variants best suited for the new environs become more common. By analyzing patterns of variation among the damselfly’s genome, researchers were able to pinpoint genes allowing the insect to adapt — genes related to heat tolerance, physiology and visual processing.

“These genes may be helping these insects deal with extreme climates, and how they find food and mates as their distribution shifts into novel northern habitats,” said Rachael. “Our research suggests that the blue-tailed damselfly has a wealth of evolutionary strategies available to help it adapt to a changing climate.”

Rachael and her colleagues published their findings this week in the journal Molecular Ecology.

Not all species will have the genetic tool needed to adapt to rapidly changing temperatures and environmental conditions.

“Our research highlights the need to further investigate how different species will cope with climate change,” said Rachael. “Identifying the species that are going to struggle the most in changing environments will allow us to direct conservation actions more appropriately.”

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