Emerging evidence that cities drive micro-evolution raises the question of whether rapid urbanization of Earth might impact ecosystems by causing systemic changes in functional traits that regulate urban ecosystems' productivity and stability. Intraspecific trait variation—variation in organisms' morphological, physiological or behavioural characteristics stemming from genetic variability and phenotypic plasticity—has significant implications for ecological functions such as nutrient cycling and primary productivity. While it is well established that changes in ecological conditions can drive evolutionary change in species' traits that, in turn, can alter ecosystem function, an understanding of the reciprocal and simultaneous processes associated with such interactions is only beginning to emerge. In urban settings, the potential for rapid trait change may be exacerbated by multiple selection pressures operating simultaneously. This paper reviews evidence on mechanisms linking urban development patterns to rapid phenotypic changes, and differentiates phenotypic changes for which there is evidence of micro-evolution versus phenotypic changes which may represent plasticity. Studying how humans mediate phenotypic trait changes through urbanization could shed light on fundamental concepts in ecological and evolutionary theory. It can also contribute to our understanding of eco-evolutionary feedback and provide insights for maintaining ecosystem function over the long term.
This article is part of the themed issue ‘Human influences on evolution, and the ecological and societal consequences’.
One contribution of 18 to a theme issue ‘Human influences on evolution, and the ecological and societal consequences’.
- Accepted September 29, 2016.
- © 2016 The Author(s)
Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.