Studying soil mites in a laboratory, researchers found that the invertebrates' age of maturity almost doubled in just 20-or-so generations.

It had been assumed that evolutionary change only occurred over a much longer timescale.

The findings have been published in the journal Ecology Letters.

"What this study shows for the first time is that evolution and ecology go hand-in-hand," explained co-author Tim Benton, professor of population ecology at the University of Leeds, UK.

"The implicit assumption has always been, from Darwin onwards, that evolution works on long timescale and ecology works on short timescales.

"The thinking was that if you squash a population or you change the environment then nothing will happen from an evolutionary point-of-view for generations and generations, for centuries."