In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Contemporary Evolution

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Evolutionary Applications

Evolutionary Biology Contemporary Evolution
Andrew P. Hendry, Michael T. Kinnison
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0126


The term “contemporary evolution” is typically used in reference to ongoing or recent genetically based (heritable) phenotypic changes taking place in wild populations. In some cases, the genetic and genomic basis for these phenotypic changes can be identified and documented. Contemporary evolution is most apparent when organisms experience dramatic environmental changes, especially due to human causes such as commercial fisheries, climate change, pollution, or urbanization. Contemporary evolution then influences a number of evolutionary and ecological processes, such as ecological speciation, population dynamics (including evolutionary rescue), community structure, and ecosystem function. As a result, contemporary evolution has important applications in conservation biology, environmental sciences, and sustainability science.

General Overviews

The first conceptual review of contemporary evolution, which also coined the term, was Hendry and Kinnison 1999. That paper also advocated and advanced the use evolutionary rate metrics to analyze and compare rates of phenotypic change. Contemporary evolution was later alternatively defined as evolution occurring over ecological time scales in Hairston, et al. 2005, which also argued for the importance of ongoing evolution in shaping ecological processes. Hendry 2017 provides a general overview of the various factors shaping contemporary evolution and the ecological consequences of that evolution. Although the study of contemporary evolution emphasizes changes that take place in wild populations, studies of selection in laboratory or other controlled populations have taught us much about how evolution responds to changes in selection, as reviewed in Kassen 2014.

  • Hairston, N. G., Jr., S. P. Ellner, M. A. Geber, T. Yoshida, and J. A. Fox. 2005. Rapid evolution and the convergence of ecological and evolutionary time. Ecology Letters 8:1114–1127.

    One of the first papers to emphasize the importance of contemporary evolution for ecological change, along with a means for quantifying the relative importance of evolution to that ecological change.

  • Hendry, A. P. 2017. Eco-evolutionary dynamics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Provides a detailed conceptual and empirical integration of contemporary evolution into evolutionary ecology and eco-evolutionary dynamics.

  • Hendry, A. P., and M. T. Kinnison. 1999. The pace of modern life: Measuring rates of contemporary microevolution. Evolution 53:1637–1653.

    The first assessment of methods for quantifying and comparing rates of phenotypic change in contemporary populations, with a first compilation of estimates of observed rates of change in existing empirical studies.

  • Kassen, R. 2014. Experimental evolution and the nature of biodiversity. Gordonsville, VA: Macmillan Learning.

    Reviews studies of experimental evolution conducted in the laboratory.

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