Testing evolutionary predictions in wild mice

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Science  01 Feb 2019:
Vol. 363, Issue 6426, pp. 452-453
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw3097

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Four decades ago, Dougal Dixon used “thought experiments” based on evolutionary and ecological principles in his book After Man (1), to imagine what adaptations species may develop in a future after humans disappeared. For example, he imagined that pytherons, a group of carnivorous mammals evolved from rats, would fill the ecological niche currently occupied by seals in the polar oceans. Pytheron evolution included fin-shaped limbs and a streamlined body, better adapted for swimming. His book on “speculative evolution” is a reminder that making specific predictions about trait evolution in nature, in many cases, belongs more to science fiction than to science. Indeed, evolutionary ecology has yet to build a predictive framework that allows forecasting how genetically encoded traits may respond to known selective pressures (2, 3). On page 499 of this issue, Barrett et al. (4) take advantage of recently evolved traits in wild mice (Peromyscus maniculatus) with known genetic architecture to experimentally simulate the ecological context and evolutionary forces that may have led to the evolution of differences in coat color according to soil color in Sand Hills, Nebraska.