Category Archives: Evolution

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.
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Paleoclimate + genetic study confirms: Arctic species adapted to sea ice changes

A new paper that combines paleoclimatology data for the last 56 million years with molecular genetic evidence concludes there were no biological extinctions [of Arctic marine animals] over the last 1.5M years despite profound Arctic sea ice changes that included ice-free summers: polar bears, seals, walrus and other species successfully adapted to habitat changes that exceeded those predicted by USGS and US Fish and Wildlife polar bear biologists over the next 100 years.

Healy Aug  24 2015 Polar-Bear V Tim Kenna

Cronin, T. M. and Cronin, M.A. 2015. Biological response to climate change in the Arctic Ocean: the view from the past. Arktos 1:1-18 [Open access]

Thomas Cronin is a USGS paleoclimatologist at the Eastern Geology and Paleoclimate Science Center, and Matthew Cronin is a molecular geneticist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (see previous posts here and here about Matt’s work on the genetics of polar bear evolution).

From the Abstract:

Arctic climatic extremes include 25°C hyperthermal periods during the Paleocene-Eocene (56–46 million years ago, Ma), Quaternary glacial periods when thick ice shelves and sea ice cover rendered the Arctic Ocean nearly uninhabitable, seasonally sea-ice-free interglacials and abrupt climate reversals.

The final discussion and two summary graphics from this paper (copied below) are especially useful:

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Polar bears barely survived the sea ice habitat changes of the last Ice Age, evidence suggests

While the polar bear is an Ice Age species, genetic and fossil evidence suggests it barely survived the profound sea ice changes associated with the Last Glacial Maximum, one of the most severe glacial periods of the Pleistocene.

polar_bear_usfws_no date_sm

A map of sea ice extent at the climax of the Last Glacial Maximum (both perennial and seasonal ice), prepared with the help of a colleague, makes it possible to discuss what genetic and fossil evidence can tell us about the probable effects of glacial conditions on polar bears and ringed seals.

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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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