Tag Archives: Cronin

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] http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s41063-015-0019-3

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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My new Arctic Fallacy paper- Sea ice stability and the polar bear

I have a new paper out that explains a fundamental problem with polar bear conservation.

Chukchi June 15 2014_USGS_Brian Battaile_after swim_sm

I’m convinced that a flawed and out-dated ecological concept — that sea ice, under natural conditions, provides a stable, predictable habitat — is what has allowed the present doom and gloom attitude of most polar bear specialists to develop.

Sea ice changes, of course, from season to season. However, the concept that sea ice is a stable habitat assumes that these seasonal changes are predictable and virtually the same from one year to the next – at least, similar enough that the differences are not responsible for causing marked declines in population size.

The assumption is that under natural, stable conditions populations of Arctic animals will either stay the same over time or increase. Biologists were taught at university that sea ice should be a stable habitat and as a result, they’ve glossed over evidence they collected to the contrary. [see recent posts here and here, for example]

Negative effects on populations of short-term natural variations in spring sea ice or spring snow cover on sea ice have been entirely ignored in modeled predictions of future conditions. The focus has been on summer ice extent.

I have summarized this evidence in a fully referenced, peer-reviewed essay that explores how the acceptance of this fallacy (“sea ice is a stable habitat”) has so skewed the conservation biology of polar bears that to outsiders it may look like a scientific integrity issue.

The summary and the essay are below (with embedded links and references). The Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) has published the essay in their “Briefing Paper” series (#16, The Arctic Fallacy: Sea Ice Stability and the Polar Bear), which includes a must-read foreword by Dr. Matthew Cronin, Professor of Animal Genetics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Press release here, pdf here.

I think you’ll find it timely and thought-provoking.

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Polar bear gene flow blamed on melting ice is another model result that doesn’t make sense

Polar bear researchers just published a study that suggests polar bears have moved around the Arctic in direct response to recent sea ice changes — a conclusion I suggest you take with a grain of salt and a raised eyebrow.

That’s because they have also proposed, among other things, that the Svalbard Archipelago was a sea ice refugium during warm interglacial periods, and could be again if the Arctic warms as predicted. That they would accept and promote such a model-based conclusion, which has no relationship with reality, calls their scientific judgment into question.

Svalbard as a potential warm refugium_Jan 8 2015_PolarBearScience

Based on genetic model results, the Svalbard Archipelago (circled) has been proposed as a sea ice refugium for polar bears during previous warm Interglacial periods and during predicted sea ice declines in the future. Yet most years since 1979 (2014 was one exception), this region has been ice free during the summer, making Svalbard a decidedly poor candidate for retaining sea ice when it’s much warmer than today.

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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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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 http://jhered.oxfordjournals.org/content/103/6/873.abstract

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