Two researchers from UVigo participated in the first study that includes the 5000 species of this group

Generalist terrestrial mammals, those capable of inhabiting various environments, demonstrate the highest resistance to climate change-induced alterations. This finding is confirmed by an international research led by the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, in which Sara Varela and Sara Gamboa from the Mapas Lab group from the Universidade de Vigo took part. This study, which is the first encompassing all terrestrial mammal species, highlights that the relationship between evolution and climate change depends on the species’ ecological specialization. Specifically, the ability to inhabit multiple environments, characteristic of generalist species, or in limited environments, as specialists do, plays a pivotal role in the adaptation of different families of terrestrial mammals and their evolution against climatic alterations..

The study is led by Manuel Hernández, a researcher in the Department of Geodinámica, Estratigrafía y Paleontología at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and has recently been published in the journal Historical Biology. It builds upon the hypothesis formulated by palaeontologist Elisabeth S. Vrba in the 1980s regarding environmental specialization as a crucial element in understanding the evolution and diversification of species.

More than 5000 species

This study is the first to include all terrestrial mammal species. As the principal investigator of the project recalls, “We had already analyzed some groups in previous works, but this is the first time that we included information of all species of terrestrial mammals, more than 5000 species distributed in 153 families, to examine this issue”.

The results obtained confirms that generalist species, capable of occupying different biomes, are less susceptible to the alterations due to climatic changes since they can take advantage of resources from various origins and mantain stability over extended periods. By contrast, specialist species, restricted to specific biomes, are heavily affected by climate change, leading to population fragmentation and further diversification. According to Hernández Fernández, “if this fragmentation is maintained long enough for the genetic flow to be interrupted between them, it can lead to the differentiation of a different species in each one give population fragments. This is reflected in an overabundance of specialist species over generalists”. However, the researcher adds, this greater capacity for diversification has the counterpart of a greater vulnerability to climate change.

Extreme biomes, more favourable to diversification

The team collected distribution data for each species, considering which biomes inhabit. This allowed, in addition to corroborating the initial hypothesis, to establish that certain biomes represent especially favourable places for the diversification of specialist species. “These are the biomes that are located at the climatic extremes of our planet, which suffer greater alterations due to variations in the terrestrial climate,” says the UCM palaeontologist. Among them would be the equatorial forests (extreme hot-humid), subtropical deserts (hot-dry), steppes (cold-dry) and tundras (cold-humid)”.

The researchers were also able to observe significant variability among different families and biomes, associated with environmental heterogeneity, evolutionary history, and physiological differences, tall of which shape the ability of species to survive or colonize new biomes.

In addition to the Universidad Complutense and the Universidade de Vigo, other institutions involved in the study include the Universidad de Santiago de Cali, Universidad de Alcalá de Henares, Universidad de Oviedo, Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha, Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales (MNCN-CSIC), Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, and Transmitting Science.

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