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Evolving to outpace climate change, tiny marine animal provides new evidence of long-theorized genetic mechanism

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Some copepods, diminutive crustaceans with an outsized place in the aquatic food web, can evolve fast enough to survive in the face of rapid climate change, according to new research that addresses a longstanding question in the field of genetics.

Barely more than a millimeter long, the copepod Eurytemora affinis paddles its way through the coastal waters of oceans and estuaries around the world in large numbers — mostly getting eaten by juvenile fish, like salmon, herring and anchovy. Several species of copepods and one ostracod are shown here. NOAA photo library “This is a dominant coastal species, serving as very abundant and highly nutritious fish food,” says Carol Eunmi Lee, professor in the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Department of Integrative Biology and senior author of a new study on the copepods published in the journal Nature Communications . “But they’re vulnerable to climate change.”

Ocean salinity, Lee explains, is changing rapidly as ice melts and precipitation patterns change: “These copepods are a saltwater species that now needs to adapt to much fresher water in their environment.”

Many copepods (and innumerable other animals) evolved in salty water. As their environment changes, they will have to adjust to maintain their body chemistry … or […]

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