Posted onDecember 1, 2021|Comments Off on Higher than average Svalbard sea ice extent in November 2021 has implications for birth of cubs
Early last November, sea ice around Svalbard was the lowest it had been since 1967 and pregnant females were simply unable to den on the eastern islands of the archipelago and instead had to make their dens and give birth in the pack ice or the Franz Josef Land archipelago further east, as they have done before. However, the ice is back this fall with a vengeance: even Hopen Island in the south of region was surrounded by ice well before the end of the month but whether it will attract a few pregnant females remains to be seen.
Posted onSeptember 8, 2021|Comments Off on Svalbard polar bear paper falsely assumes that loss of genetic diversity has negative consequences
A new paper published today deals with an animal conservation issue I’ve addressed twice before: the theoretical assumption that loss of genetic diversity must be detrimental to species survival despite there being little evidence that this has been the case in real life. For this new study, the authors carried out some complicated measuring of genetic diversity loss and inbreeding amongst and between Svalbard region polar bear populations between 1995 and 2016 (see map below), and then modelled what this could lead to in 100 generations (1210 years), with the over-anxious hand-wringing we’ve all come to expect from such prophesies. As far as I can see, it’s all meaningless number-crunching without relevance to the real world of polar bears.
To support their claim of harm from loss of genetic diversity, the authors of this paper (Maduna et al. 2021) cite four theoretical papers that assume as fact that loss of genetic diversity is harmful but not the evidence to back up the claim. They apparently never bothered to look at species that have actually suffered dramatic loss of genetic diversity. Northern elephant seals, for example, reduced to 20-30 animals more than 100 years ago, have rebounded to a population of about 170,000 with extremely low genetic diversity but no apparent health or survival repercussions. Similar genetic bottlenecks and recoveries have been documented in Guadalupe fur seals, San Nicolas Island foxes, mouflon sheep, and North Atlantic right whales (among others), which I discussed in detail here (with references). I discussed the issue again in regards to a similar polar bear ‘genetic diversity’ paper in 2016.
Conspicuous by its absence in this new publication is a citation of the recent paper that revealed the body condition of female Svalbard polar bears had increasedsignificantlybetween 2004 and 2017 despite a pronounced decline in summer and winter sea ice extent (Lippold et al. 2019: 988). Nor did the paper cite data collected by the Norwegian Polar Institute that show the body condition of adult males in Svalbard has not changed since 1993 or that population numbers have not declined. Instead, the authors mention only that reduced numbers of pregnant females have reached traditional denning areas due to lack of ice and that bears have spent less time feeding at glacier fronts than they used to do (Maduna et al. 2021: 2), as if the only polar bear data available in relation to sea ice decline was negative.
Population bottlenecks during the Last Glacial Maximum when suitable habitat was scarce and another in the late 1800s/early 1900s due to wanton overhunting left polar bears with remarkably low genetic diversity but no apparent ill-effects to their overall heath. Oddly, this recent work by Maduna and colleagues assumes without evidence that a bit less genetic diversity could be devastating to Svalbard bears more than 1000 years from now. While the media expectedly promote this as scary new evidence of what climate change has wrought (here and here), I am not impressed.
This is conservation biology done WWF-style: loss of genetic diversity sounds bad to people who don’t know better, but real-world evidence shows it isn’t.
Lippold, A., Bourgeon, S., Aars, J., Andersen, M., Polder, A., Lyche, J.L., Bytingsvik, J., Jenssen, B.M., Derocher, A.E., Welker, J.M. and Routti, H. 2019. Temporal trends of persistent organic pollutants in Barents Sea polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in relation to changes in feeding habits and body condition. Environmental Science and Technology 53(2):984-995. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.8b05416
Maduna, S. N., Aars, J., Fløystad, I., Klütsch, C. F. C., Zeyl Fiskebeck, E. M. L., Wiig, Ø. et al. 2021. Sea ice reduction drives genetic differentiation among Barents Sea polar bears. Proceedings of the Royals Society B 288 (1958): 20211741. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2021.1741 OPEN ACCESS
Comments Off on Svalbard polar bear paper falsely assumes that loss of genetic diversity has negative consequences
Posted onNovember 11, 2020|Comments Off on Shorefast ice formation and the fall feeding season for polar bears
What may seem like a silly question is actually fundamental to polar bear survival: in the fall, why do Western Hudson Bay bears correctly expect to find seals in the new ice that forms offshore? Why are seals attracted to that new ice – called ‘shorefast ice’ or ‘fast ice’ – when they would clearly be safer out in the open water where there is no ice and no bears?
As the picture below attests, polar bears can and do kill ringed seals in the new ice that forms off the coast of Western Hudson Bay even when it is but a narrow strip of thin ice – and so close to shore their successes can be caught on camera.
Three adult male polar bears share a seal kill on the newly-formed ice off Wapusk National Park, Western Hudson Bay. 5 November 2020. Buggy cam, Explore.org
A different bear was also filmed killing another seal on 31 October. And these are only the kills we know about along a very short stretch of coast – the killing is almost certainly going on up and down the entire coast, into James Bay (see below), where there is just as much ice but no cameras.
As far as I am aware, this seal killing by polar bears goes on in newly-formed shorefast ice everywhere across the Arctic in early fall, not just in Hudson Bay. Although the timing varies, virtually everywhere in the peripheral seas of the Arctic Ocean (Barents, Kara, Laptev, Chukchi, Beaufort, as well as Baffin Bay and Davis Strait), shorefast ice forms before the mobile ice pack expands to meet the ice developing from shore.
This shorefast ice formation in fall provides a predictable but short-lived source of prey for polar bears as they strive to regain some of the weight lost over the summer.
Posted onJanuary 24, 2018|Comments Off on Early Holocene polar bear skeleton from Norway vs. other ancient remains
A press release issued yesterday (23 January 2018) by the University of Stavanger tells the story of decades of work on the most complete ancient polar bear skeleton in the world, found in 1976 in southern Norway, that culminated in an articulated museum display. This specimen was described in my research paper, Annotated Map of Ancient Polar Bear Remains of the World (Crockford 2012), which shows how many very early Holocene remains have been found outside current polar bear range.
A polar bear X grizzly hybrid, see Kumar et al. 2017. Photo by A. Derocher.
In my opinion, the most important conclusion of this paper is that occasional but widespread hybridization among bears is why it has been so hard to say with confidence when polar bears arose (which I addressed years ago, in my Polar bear evolution series: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). You cannot use traditional methods of pinpointing the timing of speciation events from genetic data if one or more of the species have hybridized (traded genes). See the long, fuzzy “divergence times” for bears in the image below from the Kumar paper.
From Kumar et al. 2017, Fig. 5: “The scale bar shows divergence times in million years and 95% confidence intervals for divergence times [speciation events] are shown as shadings.”
Posted onJanuary 14, 2016|Comments Off on 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.
“…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.”
“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.”
Posted onJanuary 9, 2016|Comments Off on 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 wereno 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 biologistsover the next 100 years.
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:
Posted onApril 21, 2015|Comments Off on 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.
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.
Posted onSeptember 30, 2014|Comments Off on 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 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.
Posted onSeptember 16, 2014|Comments Off on 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?
I’ve done some summer reading on this topic, which I’ve summarized below. The results may surprise you. Continue reading
Comments Off on Polar bear attacks on humans – an evolutionary perspective