The EVOLHAB projectA genomic approach to assess the impact of habitat instability on the evolution of island organisms” was successfully completed in May 2024. This project involved researchers and students from the Laboratory of Molecular Ecology and Evolution of the Department of Biological Sciences of the University of Cyprus, led by Associate Professor Anna Papadopoulou.

The EVOLHAB project focused on the ecology and evolution of the soil fauna of coastal dunes, i.e. dunes formed by wind and wave action and held together by specially adapted plants.

The research was carried out in the coastal sand dune ecosystems of Cyprus and the Aegean islands and used DNA sequencing-based methods. The results of the research showed that sand beetle species, i.e. those adapted to live exclusively in coastal sandy ecosystems, have very low genetic diversity compared to their relatives that are able to survive in inland ecosystems with compact soil. Simulations have shown that their low genetic diversity is due to frequent drastic reductions or even local extinctions of their populations due to intense environmental pressures. Many species of sand beetles have lost the ability to fly (since flight puts them at risk due to the possibility of being blown away by the wind and drowning in the sea) and therefore their dispersal from one beach to another is relatively rare. Their low genetic diversity and low dispersal capacity makes them very vulnerable to modern conditions of rapid climate change and sea level rise.

This research highlights the importance of Cyprus’ coastal dune ecosystems, which protect the island’s coasts from erosion, but are under severe threat from anthropogenic impacts and sea level rise. While in earlier periods of sea-level rise the dunes were able to migrate inland, the construction of roads and tourist infrastructure is now preventing such migration and will inevitably lead to a reduction in the spatial extent of these important ecosystems and possibly to the extinction of many sand dune species.

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