Understanding evolution helps conservationists in their efforts to protect endangered species. When resources are limited, as they often are, scientists have to make choices about which natural areas to protect and which populations of species to focus on. Understanding evolution can help them decide where to devote resources.

For example, many people think that the key to protecting endangered species is to conserve the maximum number of individuals possible. But understanding evolutionary biology and the patterns of variation present in natural populations helps us recognize that the real key is conserving genetic variability. If two populations are genetically different, part of a viable conversation management plan is maintaining this diversity, for two reasons:

^ This diversity is a characteristic of the species that the scientists are trying to protect.

^ The naturally existing variation allows the species to respond to future changes in the environment.

Another thing that evolution teaches — specifically, evolution by random events — is that we can't allow endangered populations to reach critically low numbers. In small populations, the variations scientists are trying to conserve — the very essence of what makes a particular species unique — are at risk of being lost due to random events that would be insignificant in a larger population. (For more information on the role chance plays in small populations, go to Chapter 6.)

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