Category Archives: Evolution

Natural selection helps polar bears adapt to sea ice variability – which means some bears die

Evolution is not just for the long-term – natural selection also goes on over short time periods. In the case of polar bears, this adaptation is almost certainly critical for its long-term survival.

Hudson Bay female with cub_Wapusk_Thorsten Milse_Gov CA

Hudson Bay female with cub Wapusk National Park, Thorsten Milse, Government of Canada

Not all polar bears are identical — that is the reality that allows natural selection to operate.

I will argue that early breakup years in Western Hudson Bay weed out individual polar bears that do not have the physiological or behavioral characteristics necessary to be useful members of the population – and that this is a good thing for the entire population.

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Polar bear attacks on humans – an evolutionary perspective

What with polar bear populations higher than they were 50 years ago and with many bears onshore during the ice-free season, a few polar bear attacks are to be expected – but how does the behaviour that drives those attacks compare with their closest evolutionary cousin, the grizzly?

Polar bear grizzly profiles_composite_Sept 15

I’ve done some summer reading on this topic, which I’ve summarized below. The results may surprise you.
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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 paper, fellow geneticist Charlotte Lindqvist offered an outdated argument against future polar bear survival that is as easy to refute as Amstrup’s “unprecedented rate of warming” nonsense.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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