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Past Winner

Andrew Hendry

Evolutionary Biology

McGill University


Charles Darwin concluded his revolutionary treatise On the Origin of Species with the words, "…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved." For the past 150 years, science and social controversy have focused on evolution in the past tense. But what about Darwin's final tease, the evolutionary present? Is it really possible to see evolution in action?

"Evolution is occurring around us all the time, we don't have to wait thousands or millions of years. We can look for it in the present," says McGill University evolutionary biologist Andrew Hendry, recipient of a 2009 NSERC E.W.R. Steacie Fellowship.

And that's exactly what the observant Dr. Hendry has done. The 40-year-old associate professor is a world leader in documenting rapid, or contemporary, evolution. And in showing that evolution is a here-and-now force, he's closed the circle on the traditional notion of how environments act to create natural selection. Rather than a one-way process, Dr. Hendry is asking how those that survive, in turn, shape their environment, and thus the very conditions of natural selection.

"It's been widely accepted that ecology matters to evolution. So, for example, seed distribution or climate matters to bird evolution," he says. "But what hasn't been widely accepted is the reverse pathway—ecologists haven't often thought that short-term evolution mattered in studying contemporary ecology."

But, Dr. Hendry's early research caused ecologists and evolutionary biologists to sit up and re-think the speed of evolution and its ecological implications. In a 2000 paper in Science he showed that populations of salmon introduced into new wild environments can become partially reproductively isolated in just 14 generations. That number was unbelievably low compared to the hundreds if not thousands of generations previously thought to be required for a new species to form.

What he started with fish he soon continued with birds. (An ardent angler, Dr. Hendry chose the University of Victoria for his undergraduate degree in part because of the fishing opportunities.)

He had been inspired to study rapid evolution by reading Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time, a Christmas present from his mother. Jonathan Weiner's 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning book tells the story of evolutionary biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant's lifelong work with the Galapagos finches documenting evolution in action.

"The Grants started their work while at McGill," says Dr. Hendry. "So, with my Galapagos finch research, I'm now working on the very system that so inspired Darwin and also made me want to be an evolutionary biologist."

In 2006, working with 50 years of Galapagos finch data, Dr. Hendry and colleagues showed that human influence doesn't just drive other species extinct, but can also put the brakes on species development. Human settlement of Santa Cruz Island, and the resulting changes in vegetation, appeared to have stopped the diversification of one finch species into two.

Now, as part of his Steacie research, Dr. Hendry will continue to tease out the real-time interplay between ecology and evolution. The work involves wild populations of guppies in Trinidad, stickleback fish in British Columbia, and the famous Galapagos finches.

"In each of these three systems we have good evidence that ecology matters to evolution on relatively short time scales. What I want to do now is also examine the reverse pathway, so that within each system I can look at the feedback between evolution and ecology in real time."

While Darwin hinted at rapid evolution, in On the Origin of Species he also wrote, "We see nothing of these slow changes in progress until the hand of time has marked the long lapse of ages."

"I'd be really curious to know what Darwin really thought about the speed of evolution," says Dr. Hendry. "He mentions at one point that new species may arise in only a few thousand generations. But given the controversy he knew he'd face, I think he was just being conservative."