Fishing and hunting are having broad, swift impacts on the body size and reproductive abilities of fish and other commercially harvested species, potentially jeopardizing the ability of entire populations to recover, according to the results of a new study that will appear in the January 12, 2009, online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Human predation is accelerating the rate of observable trait changes by 300 percent above the pace observed within natural systems, and 50 percent faster than in systems subject to other human influences, including pollution, according to Chris Darimont, the lead author of the paper entitled "Human Predators Outpace Other Agents of Trait Change in the Wild."
Not only fast, the changes are also dramatic in magnitude: Harvested populations are on average 20 percent smaller in body size than previous generations, and their age of first reproduction is on average 25 percent earlier, according to Darimont, a postdoctoral researcher in environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
"Harvested organisms are the fastest-changing organisms of their kind in the wild, likely because we take such high proportions of a population and target the largest," said Darimont. "It's an ideal recipe for rapid trait change."
The study is the first to calculate the pace of evolution in commercially harvested organisms and compare the rates to other systems. The team calculated the rates of trait change with a metric appropriately called the 'Darwin,' which allowed the comparison of changes across traits and species among natural and human-modified systems, including 'human predator' systems. It builds on research by coauthor Michael Kinnison and colleagues that has documented the evolutionary impact of other human activities, such as pollution and the introduction of species to new environments.
Darimont's findings are based on a meta-analysis of 34 scientific studies that tracked 29 species in a total of 40 specific geographic systems. The bulk of the studies focused on impacts on fish populations, but other subjects included intertidal invertebrates such as limpets and snails, as well as bighorn sheep, caribou, and two plant species: Himalayan snow lotus and American ginseng.
By harvesting vast numbers and targeting large, reproductively mature individuals, human predation is quickly reshaping the wild populations that remain, leaving smaller individuals to reproduce at ever-earlier ages, said Darimont.
"The public knows we often harvest far too many fish, but the threat goes above and beyond numbers," said Darimont. "We're changing the very essence of what remains, sometimes within the span of only two decades. We are the planet's super-predator."
"The pace of changes we're seeing supercedes by a long shot what we've observed in natural systems, and even in systems that have been rapidly modified by humans in other ways," said Darimont. "As predators, humans are a dominant evolutionary force."