The youngest species do not always do better, it appears that evolutionarily ancient animals are better equipped to deal with future environmental stresses

There are many factors to consider when looking at the success of a species. Habitat, hunting prowess and how quickly it can reproduce, to name but a few.

It is now apparent that we can add evolutionary age into the mix.

A new study in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology, finds that some of the most ancient vertebrate species alive today may in turn do better in future periods of dramatic climate change.

That's because they are better equipped to adapt to future environmental stresses, precisely because their ancient relatives have done so before.

The traits associated with their success could also predict how well other threatened species might survive.

Five years ago a team led by Sylvain Dubey of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, started to look at the evolutionary age of vertebrate species to see if they could identify common features shared by old and young species. They combed through the family trees of over 600 vertebrates to understand whether or not those features are specific to certain animal groups.

"We found a huge variety of patterns not specific to groups, not just birds or mammals," says Dubey.

That is, if a species of bird, mammal, amphibian or fish was viviparous – those that give birth to live young – it tended to have existed for longer than its egg-laying or “oviparous” counterparts.

But this effect was closely tied to which latitude they lived in.

Oviparous animals need to lay eggs in environments with a reasonably warm ambient temperature for their offspring to survive. Viviparous animals on the other hand can move around to optimal environments before birth takes place, so they are better at surviving in cold regions, and better at coping with episodes of global cooling associated with ice ages.

"If you check the age of species you can see that oviparous species are younger when you go north or south, far from equator, so they are more susceptible to climate change. 

"There is a huge impact in the north or south but not closer to the equator within the tropics."

Other traits also correlated with the age of species. For instance, species with scales, fur or feathers that can differ in colour between individuals were approximately 1.86 million years older compared to species where individuals are always the same colour.

Colour can provide camouflage and therefore influence how successful an animal is when hunting or being hunted. It can also help them to exploit more habitats. "If you are small you want to be cryptic otherwise other species might eat you," says Dubey.

By finding these patterns the team has "provided a complete picture of the factors shaping the resilience of [a] species", Dubey says.

"Organisms that have persisted for a long time, and have survived across a wide range of environmental conditions, may be more likely to deal with future modifications of their environment. A recently evolved taxon, in contrast, would not have been tested to the same degree."

The oldest species in the analyis, at 23 and 18 million years, are the Peter's thread snake and the crowned gecko. The youngest were the social vole and Swainson's thrush, both only about 100,000 years old.   

Dubey says that by looking at the history of species' survival it may be possible to better predict the threat status of those on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of threatened species

"It would be good to see if there is a link between the Red List and what we found, but for that we need more species." 

Melissa Hogenboom is BBC Earth's feature writer. She is @melissasuzanneh on Twitter.

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