Tag Archives: population bottleneck

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 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.

Figure 1 from Maduna et al. 2021

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.

References

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

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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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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