One of the questions that often comes up in my first-year bio classes relates to natural selection and human evolution. Does the fact that modern medical science keeps alive people who in previous centuries might have died, mean that we're countering the effects of natural selection? As you can imagine, this generates quite a lot of interesting discussion that spans ethical issues as well as the obvious biological ones.
Next year I think I'll give the class a new paper to read: one that examines such a question in the context of the Chatham Island black robins (Petroica traversi) (Massaro et al, 2013).
As many New Zealand biology students may know, by 1980 the breeding population of this little bird was reduced to a single pair, in a total population of seven. Things were not looking good, but dedicated conservation workers – led by the late Don Merton (there's a lovely obituary for him here) – managed to turn things around by careful management of the population, including fostering the robin's first clutches under another species (thus inducing the robins to lay again), and translocating the small population from Little Mangere Island to the better habitat on Mangere Island. However, it seems that at the same time, the conservationists were also unwittingly selecting for a distinctly maladaptive behaviour – that of laying eggs that were left teetering on the very brim of the nest.
After that initial bottleneck event the population slowly started to recover. However, the researchers working with them noticed that in 1984 one of the five breeding females laid a sinlge egg were laid at the edge of her nest, with more females following suit in subsequent years. Left alone the eggs didn't hatch, mainly because they weren't incubated (although I suspect some could simply fall off the edge). The obvious thing to do was to reposition the eggs in the nest, & this resulted in an increased in chicks hatched & subsequently fledged. However, Massaro & her colleagues report that by 1989 18 of the 35 females (51%) were 'edge-layers', a behaviour that would leave the population completely reliant on human intervention if edge-laying continued to spread.
The research team suspected that this was an example of inherited rather than learned behaviour, and hypothesised that
[if] rim-laying [had] a genetic basis, and its spread [had] been facilitated by human intervention through egg repositioning, the frequency of this trait would be predicted to decrease following cessation of intervention.
we therefore compared egg-laying data from three years before cessation of repositioning (1987–89) with a three year period almost two decades after management stopped (2007–09)
and found that the number of rim eggs being laid decreased significantly between those two periods. They next looked at the many years' worth of data to see if the 'rim-laying' behaviour had any effect on individuals' evolutionary fitness, and discovered that
[when] rim eggs were not repositioned, females that laid rim eggs had significantly reduced clutch sizes (i.e. number of eggs laid inside nests that were incubated), and decreased hatching and breeding success compared to normal-laying females, demonstrating that rim laying substantially reduces fitness.
This episode yields an important lesson for conservation biology: fixation of maladaptive traits could render small threatened populations completely dependent on humans for reproduction, irreversibly compromising the long term viability of populations humanity seeks to conserve.
You'll also find information on the study here on the University of Canterbury website.
Massaro M., Sainudiin, R., Merton, D., Briskie JV, Poole, AM, Hale ML (2013) Human-Assisted Spread of a Maladaptive Behavior in a Critically Endangered Bird. PLoS ONE 8(12): e79066. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0079066