A study by Umea University ecologist Tom Cameron and a research team at University of Leeds overturns the common assumption that evolution only occurs gradually over hundreds or thousands of years.
Instead, researchers found significant genetically transmitted changes in laboratory populations of soil mites in just 15 generations leading to a doubling of the age at which the mites reached adulthood and large changes in population size.
The results have important implications in areas such as disease and pest control, conservation and fisheries management because they demonstrate that evolution can be a game-changer even in the short-term.
"This demonstrates that short-term ecological change and evolution are completely intertwined and cannot reasonably be considered separate," Professor Tim Benton, of the University of Leeds' Faculty of Biological Sciences, said.
"We found that populations evolve rapidly in response to environmental change and population management. This can have major consequences such as reducing harvesting yields or saving a population heading for extinction," he said.
Although previous research has implied a link between short-term changes in animal species' physical characteristics and evolution, the Leeds-led study is the first to prove a causal relationship between rapid genetic evolution and animal population dynamics in a controlled experimental setting.
The results are published in the journal Ecology Letters.