Study sheds new light on how animals and plants respond to changes in the environment

  • Scientists discover new insight into how living creatures adapt to changes in their environment
  • Study is first to show that the responsiveness of populations to environmental change depends on the conditions they experienced in the past
  • University of Sheffield research strengthens our understanding of how animals and plants can respond to natural and man-made changes to the environment

Water flea

Scientists at the University of Sheffield have discovered that living creatures’ responsiveness to changes in the environment can evolve and depends on the conditions they experienced in their past.

The study, published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, is the first to show that the ability of a living creature to change its characteristics in response to changes in its environment, can itself evolve. Such flexibility in how organisms develop has fascinated scientists for generations.

This flexibility has emerged as a crucial factor in the study of how animals and plants respond to natural and man-made changes to their environment, which include predators, disease and changes in temperature.

The University of Sheffield study, led by Dr Andrew Beckerman from Sheffield’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, in collaboration with researchers from across Europe, investigated changes to the characteristics of water fleas.

Water fleas are an iconic example of how the flexibility of a living creature’s ability to develop in response to changes in their environment can evolve. They can grow helmets or spikes on their necks in response to smells emitted by their predators, which signal a risk of mortality.

Water fleas can reproduce without sex, giving birth to genetically identical offspring, which allowed the researchers to look at how genetically identical individuals respond to different predators.

Furthermore, water fleas can smell their predators, and this smell triggers changes in development at very early ages that results in helmets and spikes forming on their heads, altered timing of size at which they reproduce and the number of offspring.

The international research team examined a population of water fleas exposed to a midge predator and other populations that were exposed to fish and midge predators.

Using novel methods to examine simultaneously the flexibility in multiple traits, they found repeatedly that the flexibility of populations exposed only to midge was different than populations exposed to both fish and midge. Living with two predators affected the evolution of the flexibility in a manner very different from living with one. The history of exposure to different predators changed how the water fleas were able to be flexible.

Department of Animal and Plant Sciences

Additional Information

The University of Sheffield
With almost 27,000 of the brightest students from over 140 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.

A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

Sheffield is the only university to feature in The Sunday Times 100 Best Not-For-Profit Organisations to Work For 2017 and was voted number one university in the UK for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education in 2014. In the last decade it has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.

Sheffield has six Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

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Shemina Davis
Media Relations Manager
The University of Sheffield
0114 2225339