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How Human Roads And Highways Hurt Wildlife Habitats – Forcing Adaptation And Evolution

Evolution allows species to adapt to their environment so that the species can fulfill a niche and live to reproduce and continue. Those species that did not evolve fast enough and were unable to change their local habitats are either no longer with us or are at risk of being listed as endangered and then, perhaps eventually, extinct. Let’s discuss how humans modify not only our own environment, but also the environment we share with other species and how this affects their adaptations and evolutionary process.

There was an interesting article in Science News online recently titled: “Roads Drive Rapid Evolutionary Change in Our Environment – Study Explains Why Road Ecology Matters”, published on February 17, 2017 about a study from Dartmouth College which said: “Roads cause rapid evolutionary change in wild plant and animal populations according to new paper. Study examines evolutionary changes caused by the way roads slice and dice our plane.”

Among the four major ways our roads mess with wildlife are:

(1) Road death

(2) Toxic fumes from vehicles

(3) Invasive Species

(4) Changes in sediment runoff and water flow

But to this list I would add road noise, interference with nature’s hunting and avoidance process, and the urban heat island effect. Also, hunting by people, easier access to animals standing near roads to kill roads, heat or water runoff – and poisoning by people who put out poisons to prevent rodents and hips from digging borrows under the road or in nearby flood defense levees and infrastructure. So, let’s call these:

(5) Road noise – Harder to hear predators or prey

(6) Heating – The streets are hotter

(7) Access to human hunting

(8) Poisoning – Rodent control in road ditches, pavements, road base

There are many Road Kill studies – one I often like to cite is by Sean Anderson of California State University Channel Islands in California. One of his graduate students has a thesis of interest. The “Internet-Based Roadkill Reporting System,” which was an incredibly insightful project about how many animals are killed each year in rural California. Those animals that avoid the streets live to reproduce, the ones that don’t often get crushed, providing protein to the scavengers who exploit this new food supply – sometimes at their own peril.

Those animals that hear cars or watch carefully and react quickly survive and thrive, reproduce and carry on. Nocturnal animals that do not freeze in the headlights of cars – well, they also live and are born, those that do not get lost and become street pizza.

There have been many stories of Mountain Lions being killed on Southern California freeways – trying to get through. You’d think a mountain lion would learn and be agile enough to get out of the way—not so, since nothing they’ve ever encountered weighs 6,000 pounds. and he chases them at 60+ miles per hour, so he’s not on the lookout for cars. Although some of the mountain lions that have been tagged have routinely crossed highways in California, perhaps they are learning and adapting, teaching their young, perhaps in 20 generations adaptations will begin to emerge as they evolve for this new threat?

A recent statistical study showed that the average point in the US is less than 1/2 mile from a paved road. Our wildlife must adapt or die to cope with these changes in their environment. You can just imagine the many ways these and other issues change their evolutionary fit. Pigeons have adapted to living in the city, in parks, along with other species – completely changing the dynamics of their normal evolutionary process, simply because everything we do affects something else. BTW – I’m not an environmentalist or a wildlife advocate, but no one can deny that what I said here today is not true.

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