Genetic similarity of polar bears does not make them vulnerable to global warming

A new genetics paper suggests that global warming will “fragment” polar bear habitat to such an extent that it will further reduce the already-low genetic variability documented in the bears, with disastrous effects on survival.

Beaufort Sea male polar bear USGS_2005 Amstrup photo

However, that argument only works if you disregard a rather large body of literature on other mammals as well as the history of polar bears themselves. I’ve addressed this issue before (“Low genetic diversity will not make polar bears more vulnerable to extinction”) and what I said then needs to be repeated now:

“…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.

I continued:

Many populations that were reduced to very low numbers (i.e., gone through a ‘bottleneck’ ), ending up with low genetic variation, have subsequently recovered dramatically without adverse affects.

In other words, they not only recouped their population size after a population bottleneck but did so while dealing with subsequent environmental fluctuations and other natural threats to their survival (Lehman 1998:R723-724).

In some cases, genetic diversity increased after a population bottleneck, via mechanisms biologists are only just beginning to understand.

In fact, there is good evidence to suggest that ice age cooling is what previously fragmented polar bear populations: past warm interglacial periods brought bears closer together, confined more or less to the area within the Arctic Circle – even in winter.

Go back and read the entire genetic diversity post. I concluded it by recounting several examples of abundant and successful mammal populations with low genetic diversity (with references), including Northern elephant seals, Guadalupe fur seal, Sand Nicolas Island fox, Mouflon sheep, and North Atlantic right whale. The details are worth reviewing. If you can’t access a paper you want to read, contact me via the contact page above and I’ll send it along.

Regarding this new paper (Kutschera et al. 2016), what I said before needs repeating:

“To suggest that polar bears cannot endure a bit of Arctic warming in the future (whether natural or due to human influences on climate, or a bit of both) is absurd: climatic extremes have defined the evolutionary history of polar bears, which means that climatic extremes have fine-tuned their biological adaptability.”

In fact, the paleoclimate/genetics paper by Cronin and Cronin (2015) which I summarized a few days ago, documents those climatic extremes. See below for details on the polar bear genetic diversity paper.

Kutschera and colleagues 2016 (in press). High genetic variability of vagrant polar bears illustrates importance of population connectivity in fragmented sea ice habitats. Animal Conservation [open access] DOI: 10.1111/acv.12250

Projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and sea ice forecasts suggest that Arctic sea ice will decline markedly in coming decades. Expected effects on the entire ecosystem include a contraction of suitable polar bear habitat into one or few refugia. Such large-scale habitat decline and fragmentation could lead to reduced genetic diversity. Here we compare genetic variability of four vagrant polar bears that reached Iceland with that in recognized subpopulations from across the range, examining 23 autosomal microsatellites, mitochondrial control region sequences and Y-chromosomal markers. The vagrants’ genotypes grouped with different genetic clusters and showed similar genetic variability at autosomal microsatellites (expected heterozygosity, allelic richness, and individual heterozygosity) as individuals in recognized subpopulations. Each vagrant carried a different mitochondrial haplotype. A likely route for polar bears to reach Iceland is via Fram Strait, a major gateway for the physical exportation of sea ice from the Arctic basin. Vagrant polar bears on Iceland likely originated from more than one recognized subpopulation, and may have been caught in sea ice export during long-distance movements to the East Greenland area. Although their potentially diverse geographic origins might suggest that these vagrants encompass much higher genetic variability than vagrants or dispersers in other regions, the four Icelandic vagrants encompassed similar genetic variability as any four randomly picked individuals from a single subpopulation or from the entire sample. We suggest that this is a consequence of the low overall genetic variability and weak range-wide genetic structuring of polar bears – few dispersers can represent a large portion of the species’ gene pool. As predicted by theory and our demographic simulations, continued gene flow will be necessary to counteract loss of genetic variability in increasingly fragmented Arctic habitats. Similar considerations will be important in the management of other taxa that utilize sea ice habitats.

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