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 increased significantly between 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