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Africa’s Animals Could Evolve into Separate Species As Climate Changes

September 1, 2008

By Jenny Haworth

Climate change could trigger an explosion in the number of new species in Africa, according to research from Edinburgh University.

The future loss of lakes and rivers in Africa would influence how species such as buffalo, wildebeest and elephants evolve, according to scientists.

Large populations of animals, which need water to survive, could be divided and, over time, evolve into new species to cope with their new surroundings.

An isolated population of buffalo, unable to interbreed with others, might evolve to the size of small elephants in the future, in order to accommodate a larger stomach. Alternatively it might develop huge, long legs to carry them further distances to water and better food sources.

Researchers at Edinburgh University studied the loss of rivers and lakes in Africa millions of years ago, when forests dried to grassland.

They have shown that groups of animals became isolated from one another over large distances by the need to stay close to a watering hole, lake or river. Over millions of years the groups evolved into different species, such as gazelles, buffalo and wildebeest.

Dr Julian Derry, of Edinburgh University’s School of Biological Sciences, said the findings, published today in the African Journal of Range and Forage Science, suggest that modern-day climate change may lead to an increase in the number of species in Africa, just as it did millions of years ago.

He said: “When Africa dried to grassy plains, groups of animals would stay close to their local source of water, and groups would have become separated by large distances across the plains. We believe this separation played a key role in the evolution of many of the species we recognise today.

“Modern-day climate change could break up water networks like it did millions of years ago.”

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