Thursday, January 31, 2019

"The Wild Experiment That Showed Evolution in Real Time"

Ed Yong:
In the fall of 2010, Rowan Barrett was stuck. He needed a piece of land, one with plenty of mice, and after days of futile searching, he found himself at a motel bar in Valentine, Nebraska, doing what people do at bars: telling a total stranger about his problems.

A young evolutionary biologist, Barrett had come to Nebraska’s Sand Hills with a grand plan. He would build large outdoor enclosures in areas with light or dark soil, and fill them with captured mice. Over time, he would see how these rodents adapted to the different landscapes—a deliberate, real-world test of natural selection, on a scale that biologists rarely attempt.

But first, he had to find the right spots: flat terrain with the right color soil, an abundance of mice, and a willing owner. The last of these was proving especially elusive, Barrett bemoaned. Local farmers weren’t keen on giving up valuable agricultural land to some random out-of-towner. After knocking on door after door, he had come up empty. Hence: the bar.

Barrett’s drinking companion—Bill Ward, or Wild Bill to his friends—thought the idea was bizarre, but also fun. “He told me, ‘I’ve got this alfalfa field. You’re welcome to come by tomorrow. I’m okay with you building this thing,’” Barrett said to me. “I just about fell out of my chair.”


“Utter ignorance was a good thing,” said Barrett, who had, until this point, only ever worked with small fish. “Anyone who had worked with mice would have never attempted this.”
And speaking of animals:
A Northern California beach is unable to be reopened after it was closed due to the partial government shutdown, because it has been overrun with elephant seals.


“I’ve not seen anything like this here with these numbers,” John Dell’Osso, the chief of interpretation and resource education for the seashore, told the San Francisco Bay Area CBS. “An occasional rogue elephant seal, yes, but nothing like this.”

Point Reyes National Seashore is home to around 1,500 elephant seals that typically frequent Chimney Beach, which features 100-foot-cliffs that keep them hidden from the general public. But during the shutdown, the colony moved from its usual spot to an area at Drakes Beach, usually populated with tourists, by knocking down a fence.