Cities across the globe are driving rapid evolutionary changes in plants, animals, fungi, viruses, and other organisms. Organisms can adapt to the urban environment by changing their physiology, morphology, and behaviors. Because these organisms can play important roles in nutrient cycling, pollination, seed dispersal, water and air purification, and food production, any changes in their traits might have significant effects on human well-being. The challenge is to understand the mechanisms of urban-driven evolutionary change and determine whether these changes might affect ecosystem function at the planetary scale. This complex challenge can only be addressed by combining the expertise, data, and analytical methods of evolutionary biologists, ecosystem scientists, ecologists, urban ecologists, palaeoecologists, and archaeologists. A new Research Coordination Network (RCN) will bring together scientists from different institutions to design and perform long-term cross-comparative studies, to synthesize the science, and to explore mechanisms that link urban development patterns to rapid evolution and the potential for those changes to feedback to shape ecosystems. The RCN will train scholars, postdocs, and PhD students, and will recruit members with diverse backgrounds offering them direct experience in collaborative, transdisciplinary research. The network will organize conference workshops and symposia, develop searchable databases, maintain an interactive website, lead collaborative papers, develop undergraduate and graduate seminars at the participants' institutions, and create a science-practice exchange program between scientists and conservation planners. The RCN will establish pilot cross-city citizen science projects to monitor eco-evolutionary dynamics and convey key findings to the public.

Participants will explore four central questions: (1) What is the evidence for urban signatures of phenotypic change distinct from natural and other anthropogenic drivers? (2) To what degree does urban trait change differ among branches of the tree of life, or among distinct life-history strategies, traits or biomes? (3) To what degree can trait changes be attributed to phenotypic plasticity or to evolutionary change? (4) What are the functional consequences of urban-induced evolutionary changes on ecosystems? The goal is for the team to more accurately predict the responses of populations, communities, and ecosystems to urbanization. Investigators will use meta-analyses of individual character variation among urban and non-urban environments and multimodel inference to evaluate competing hypotheses and to assess the relative importance of predictor variables. They will also use targeted mechanistic experiments to test specific predictions suggested by the meta-analysis and use partitioning metrics to separate the contributions of phenotypic plasticity and evolutionary change.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Environmental Biology (DEB)
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Leslie J. Rissler
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University of Washington
United States
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