Protected Areas and Their Influence on Maintaining Genetic Diversity
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Protected Areas and Their Influence on Maintaining Genetic Diversity

Protected areas are widespread throughout the world, but our understanding of their purpose and efficiency remain poorly recognized. Protected areas play crucial roles in preserving biodiversity among varying organisms and also aid in maintaining adequate population numbers of endangered species from reaching critically low points or possible extinction. Here we explore the goals and efficacy of protected areas and the underlying ecological and evolutionary mechanisms through which they achieve those goals. Under the proper funding and supervision by law enforcement, these natural mechanisms within protected areas can be extremely successful and can reveal fundamental aspects of ecological and evolutionary equilibrium that have been previously unappreciated. This report will include definitions and examples of the different mechanisms that protected areas exert on their habitats. It will also show examples of currently operating protected areas and their effect on increasing biodiversity.

Recent ecological studies have shown that the human population has undoubtedly been the underlying factor for the decrease in Earth’s biodiversity (Futuyma, 2009).  Whether it is through over-hunting of certain species of food, destruction of habitats, or the dramatic release of varying pollutants, the human race holds much of the responsibility of how the Earth’s different ecosystems have negatively changed.  It is our duty now to responsibly clean up after ourselves and work on maintaining the survival of the many damaged animal populations across the world.

A population’s survival is reliant on adaptive genetic change, which further depends on how quickly its surrounding environment is changing (Futuyma, 2009).  If the population’s rate of evolution cannot keep up with that of environmental change, it is highly likely that the population will die off.  This is where a protected area comes in to play.  Through the two principle goals of preserving biological diversity and protecting endangered species, protected areas substantially limit the rate at which a populations surrounding environment changes. A few major components and mechanisms by which protected areas work are exemplified through the concepts of gene flow, genetic drift, and most importantly natural selection and its production of the necessary adaptations by which a species progresses.

Natural selection is the universally accepted theory that accounts for the divergence of species from common ancestors and thus for the endless diversity of life (Futuyma, 2009).   It is the cause of a species adaptation to its ever changing environment but it should not be mistaken with the definition of evolution.  Evolution can occur without the use of natural selection and natural selection can occur without any evolutionary change (Futuyma, 2009).  Natural selection can be defined as any consistent difference in fitness among phenotypically different classes of biological entities; fitness being the average per capita rate of increase in numbers (Futuyma, 2009).  Within a protected area, no unnatural outside forces that may be caused by human encroachment can interfere with the natural selection mechanism.  The different species sheltered by the protected area are able to naturally increase their “fitness” and subsequently increase their population size. 

An example of a population increase due to protected areas can be analyzed through the Georges Bank experiment which showed that seasonally closed protected areas allowed for a major increase in different species of aquatic organisms.  Overfishing was the primary culprit for the previous decrease in fish and scallop numbers prior to the year 1998.  Similar studies have showed that protected areas in tropical habitats have allowed native tropical plant life to re-grow.  Both examples show a direct increase on population numbers and biodiversity due to a direct decrease of human infringement.

The mechanisms of gene flow and genetic drift also act on the adaptations and biodiversity within a protected area.  Gene flow is the incorporation of genes into the gene pool of one population from one or more other populations and can occur within a protected area or within multiple protected areas (Futuyma, 2009).  Genetic drift is defined as the random changes in the frequencies of two or more alleles or genotypes within a population (Futuyma, 2009).  Genetic drift directly correlates to the mechanism of natural selection on a population’s adaptations and subsequent enhancement of fitness and population numbers. As the population increases, so does the frequencies of advantageous alleles or genotypes.    

Though protected areas may have a positive effect on biodiversity, there are certain guidelines that absolutely must be met for them to work at a most favorable efficiency.  Dimensions, configurations, and positions of protected areas should all be taken into consideration when determining a most suitable fundamental ecological niche of a population.  These influences set the environmental conditions in which a species can maintain a stable population size (Futuyma, 2009).  The size of the protected area must be large enough to hold an optimal amount of a breeding species.  If the population size is too small due to a small habitat, the probability of mates safely finding each other decrease consequently altering the rate at which the population can multiply.  The smaller amount of available resources will also increase intra-species competition and will accordingly decrease that population’s rate of survival.  If humans populate a large area of natural habitat, protected areas can be configured in and around these areas and may serve to halt further building progress. 

An additional influence on the efficiency of protected areas is their exact placement.  These areas must be positioned approximately in the most appropriate habitation offering the necessary food and shelter resources for populations to utilize.  Furthermore, many different species across the globe are in need of protection and the number of protecting areas must increase to incorporate them.  Funding for these many protected areas may not be much of an obstacle according to recent findings. Approximately $30 billion is spent worldwide to maintain functioning protected areas, most of which is supplied through non-government agencies and private donations.  Finances are what pay for the law enforcement within those areas subsequently allowing for the re-establishment of native plant biodiversity (Aaron G. Bruner, 2001). 


Works Cited

Aaron G. Bruner, R. E. (2001). Effectiveness of Parks in Protecting Tropical Biodiversity. Journal of Science , 125-128.

Fututma, D. J. (2009). Evolution. Sunderland, Massachusetts: Sinauer Associates, Inc.

S. A. Murawski, R. B. (2000). Large-Scale Closed Areas as a Fishery-Management Tool in Temperate Marine Systems: The Georges Bank Experience. Bulletin of Marine Science , 775-798.

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