Category Archives: Evolution

Low genetic diversity will not make polar bears more vulnerable to extinction

You’ve probably heard the argument: animal populations that have been through a major decline in numbers often have such low genetic diversity that they are extremely vulnerable to subsequent extinction.

Photo credit USGS

Photo credit USGS

In an interview in late March regarding a new genetic paper on polar bear evolution (by Matt Cronin and colleagues), polar bear biologist and Polar Bears International spokesperson Steve Amstrup made a ridiculous statement: that polar bears have never experienced a rate of warming like they’ve seen over the last 30 years. I countered that easily here.

In that same interview about the Cronin et al. paper, fellow geneticist Charlotte Lindqvist offered an outdated argument against future polar bear survival that is as easy to refute as Amstrup’s “unprecedented rate of warming” nonsense.

I didn’t have time to deal with it back in April [where has the time gone?] but want to get back to it now because it’s important: there is lots of evidence to support my contention that polar bears are not more vulnerable to extinction just because they have low genetic diversity.
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Evolution by geneticists again: yet another date for when polar bears arose

The latest addition to the never-ending story of when-and-why polar bear evolution took place according to geneticists (Liu et al. 2014 — the 8th such paper in less than 4 years, if you can believe it) is getting way, way more media attention than it deserves.

Lui et al. 2014 figure provided in the abstract.

Liu et al. 2014 figure provided in the abstract.

This multi-member research team used a new data set (mostly Scandinavian brown bears and Greenland polar bears, for a change) to add not much of anything new on the evolutionary insight front except yet another estimate of when polar bears came to be.1

However, the real focus of the paper is the description of their finding of a few genetic differences between brown bears and polar bears that they identified. They found a few genes in polar bears were different than brown bears and made a boat load of assumptions about what these might mean.

Their discovery was not accompanied by any attempt to demonstrate that the changes in gene architecture they found also involved a change in the function of the genes or were associated with different effects on bear physiology. If a changed gene cannot be shown to act differently or to have a demonstrated new physiological effect on the animal in question, the changes themselves mean next to nothing – especially for evolution!

That’s my take – see what you think. It looks long but a lot of it is quotes.
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Ancestor of the polar bear by any name: grizzly vs. brown bear monikers explained

Apparently, all media outlets (except Fox News) so confused the distinction between the two common names used for the ancestor of polar bears, Ursus arctos, that they got the point of a recent news story totally wrong. An Alaskan journalist explains.

Coastal brown bears from Admiralty Island, southeast Alaska. See previous post here.

Coastal brown bears from Admiralty Island, southeast Alaska (courtesy Jim Baichtal, US Forest Service, Alaska). See previous post here.

Tundra grizzly from the Yukon (courtesy Government of Yukon Territory). These bears also occur across the north slope of Alaska and are the bears that occasionally hybridize with polar bears, as explained here.

Tundra grizzly bear from the Yukon (courtesy Government of Yukon Territory). These bears also occur across the north slope of Alaska and are the bears that occasionally hybridize with polar bears this time of year, as explained here.

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Amstrup grasps at straws to defend his polar-bears-are-doomed computer model

Polar bear activist Steven Amstrup made an astonishing statement in an interview earlier this week — he insisted that the current rate of warming in the Arctic is greater than anything polar bears have lived through before. He also said that optimistic comments on the future of polar bears made by geneticist Matt Cronin a few weeks ago were “incautious” and “misleading.”

Polar bear cubs in den wikipedia

Previously, I described how a new paper by Cronin and colleagues confirmed that genetic evidence indicates polar bears have been around long enough to have survived several past Interglacial periods that were warmer than today (and therefore, would have had virtually no summer ice). Cronin, not unreasonably, had some critical things to say about computer modeled predictions that polar bears could not survive in an Arctic without summer sea ice.

On Monday, the Anchorage Daily News gave Amstrup a forum to rebuke Cronin for his comments. A similar story was also carried by the Washington Post. [In the same ADN article, geneticist Charlotte Lindqvist, offered an outdated argument against future polar bear survival that I’ll deal with later]

Today, I’ll address Amstrup’s ridiculous assertion that the current rate of warming, attributed by him primarily to human activities rather than natural variation, is something polar bears have never experienced in their evolutionary history (a period of more than 400,000 years!).

Let’s start with the offending portion of the news item (published March 31, 2014):

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New genetic study confirms polar bears survived several warm Interglacials

There is a new polar bear genetics paper out in the Journal of Heredity, by University of Alaska Fairbanks genetics professor Matt Cronin and colleagues. Matt Cronin, in case you didn’t know, was the first to pick up the close genetic relationship between polar bears and grizzlies, as a result of research he and colleagues did back in the early 1990s (Cronin et al. 1991).

Figure1 from Cronin et al. 2014 (in press) showing the locations of bear samples used in their genetic study. MT, Montana; AK, Alaska; Polar bear samples were from the Chukchi, Beaufort and Barents Sea populations.

Figure 1 from Cronin et al. 2014 (in press) showing the locations of bear samples used in their genetic study. MT, Montana; AK, Alaska; Polar bear samples were taken from the Chukchi, Beaufort and Barents Sea populations.

While no earth-shattering new information was revealed in this new study, reported over the weekend by the Alaska paper SitNews (March 15), it used a more detailed method to confirm the results of previous work – that polar bears have been around long enough to have survived several past Interglacial periods that were warmer than today (with less ice in the Arctic) and are genetically distinct from grizzlies.

A feature that really set this work apart was how it was promoted.
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Eemian excuses: the warm was different then, polar bears were fine

Today I’ll discuss the response by Polar Bears International representative Steven Amstrup to a comment submitted during their recent “webchat” at The Guardian (Wednesday, November 6), which had to do with the fact that polar bears survived warm periods in the geological past, particularly interglacials.

[Here’s a pdf file of all the questions that were answered by PBI staff: PBI webchat Q&A, also available here]

This is the comment (the first portion of #4 on my list), submitted by MarkBLR:

There was a paper in Science magazine last year (link …) indicating that polar bears became a distinct species about 600kya (+/- 300k years).

This means that they have survived at least two (and possibly eight) previous inter-glacials, in particular the Eemian (130kya to 110kya), when temperatures in the Arctic were 5 to 8 degrees Celcius warmer than current temperatures for several thousand years.

Note that their numbers apparently decreased significantly during the Eemian, and slowly increased as temperatures cooled, but “climate change” was not enough on its own to make them extinct. [my bold]

[We can perhaps forgive Mark for not being able to spell “Celsius” correctly, but Amstrup (see below) has no excuse. The paper in Science Mark refers to is Hailer et al. 2012, discussed in a previous post here. Note that the actual question Mark asked is not included here because Amstrup responded to this portion of his comment only]

Amstrup tries to convince Mark and other readers that polar bear resilience through Eemian warming is irrelevant to the issue of future survival, which I’ll demonstrate is not the case at all.

Here is what Amstrup had to say:
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Polar bears cavorting with ABC brown bears not supported by geological and fossil evidence

The authors of a new paper out in PLoS Genetics (Cahill et al. 2013, entitled “Genomic Evidence for Island Population Conversion Resolves Conflicting Theories of Polar Bear Evolution”) propose to explain how and why the brown bears (aka grizzlies) of the ABC islands of southeast Alaska (Admiralty, Baranof, and Chicagof – see previous post here), got to be so genetically distinct from brown bears on the Alaska mainland and so surprisingly similar (genetically) to polar bears. The authors determined (using a model) that this genetic pattern could be explained by an ancient hybridization event resulting from female polar bears cavorting with male brown bears in SE Alaska.

I had some issues with the way the paper was promoted by some of the co-authors, which I dealt with separately here. More importantly, I found the scenario these geneticists offered to explain how hybridization might have occurred to be patently implausible. Geological and fossil evidence from SE Alaska largely refutes their scenario, although another explanation may be more tenable. It is not impossible, in my opinion, that hybridization occurred in SE Alaska during the last Ice Age, but if it did, it almost certainly did not happen the way Cahill and colleagues suggest.

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Polar bear spin reaches new heights as geneticists promote their work

A new paper out in the journal PLoS Genetics proposes that a hybridization event between female polar bears and male brown bears (aka grizzlies) occurred in Southeast Alaska at the end of the last ice age. I’ll get to a discussion of the paper itself (coming in a day or two) but first I have a few things to say about the global warming hyperbole generated by the people promoting the paper. I found it simply mind-boggling.

While the paper itself (Cahill et al. 2013: “Genomic Evidence for Island Population Conversion Resolves Conflicting Theories of Polar Bear Evolution”) contains only one short phrase that could possibly be interpreted as linking the results to future scenarios of catastrophic global warming, some of the co-authors have made statements (for the press release and in media interviews) that spin the global warming mantra right over the top. Continue reading

More evidence that the polar bear is a distinct species

Most people would not question the species status of the polar bear (Ursus maritimus). While it is true that polar bears – under certain circumstances – have successfully interbred with brown bears (aka ‘grizzlies,’ Ursus arctos)[see previous post on hybridization], there are many characteristics that distinguish each of these species as unique entities (see diagram below).

Grizzly vs polar skulls composite

Now, new genetic evidence adds weight to the balance on this issue. In this post, I’ll discuss very briefly the implications of this new paper:

Cronin, M. A. and MacNeil, M. D. 2012. Genetic relationships of extant brown bears (Ursus arctos) and polar bears (Ursus maritimus). Journal of Heredity 103 (6): 873-881. doi:10.1093/jhered/ess090

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Ancient Polar Bear Remains of the World

How does the ancient distribution of polar bears – based on finds of natural-death remains (“fossils”) and bones found in archaeological sites – compare to the modern distribution of polar bears?

I have pulled together information from all of the reports I could find that listed ancient polar bear remains and summarized them into one table and one map. A low resolution copy of the map and a simplified version of the map notes are embedded in this post but a higher resolution version of the map and map notes (with pertinent details, including references) is available as a pdf. This document has been assigned an ISBN number (which means it is copyrighted and filed at Library and Archives Canada). The pdf can be downloaded below and will also be available on the PolarBearScience “references” page.

DOWNLOAD HERE: Ancient Polar Bear Remains_Crockford 2012
[small error fixed in yesterday's version]

Crockford, S.J. 2012. Annotated Map of Ancient Polar Bear Remains of the World. Electronic resource available at http://polarbearscience/references ISBN 978-0-9917966-0-1.

See map notes on pdf below for more details. Click to enlarge.

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