The evolution of wild species, adapting them to human management practices, can cause localised extinctions when those practices rapidly change. And in a new study published in Nature, Professors Michael C Singer and Camille Parmesan have used more than 30 years of research to fully document an example of this process.
A large, isolated population of a North American butterfly evolved complete dependence on an introduced European weed to the point where the continued existence of the butterfly depended on the plant's availability. The insects then became locally extinct when humans effectively eliminated that availability, confirming a prediction made by the same authors in a 1993 Nature paper.
Thus the advent of cattle ranching more than 100 years ago set an eco-evolutionary trap that the insects obligingly fell into, and the trap was sprung when humans suddenly removed the cattle, withdrawing their 'gift', and driving the butterflies to extinction.
European conservation biologists have long believed this to be the process underlying many local extinctions across Europe, and this study provides the first hard evidence of the process in action in real time. It also foreshadows an increasing importance of maintaining historical land use practices, including cattle ranching, as conservation measures in North America.