One big question I asked before writing my book on polar bear evolution was this: did interbreeding with grizzlies, aka brown bears, profoundly impact polar bear history, as geneticists insist? Or is something else going on?
Virtually all genetic studies done in recent years, which I review in my book, conclude that hybridization with grizzlies has happened to various degrees over the course of polar bear history (e.g. Cahill et al. 2013, 2018; Cronin et al. 1991; Edwards et al. 2011; Hailer 2015; Kumar et al. 2017; Miller et al. 2012). Two of the most recent studies claim the most complicated hybrid ancestry for polar bears yet, invoking tales of “extensive” past hybridization events between the two species (Lan et al. 2022; Wang et al. 2022).
But does their interpretation of the genetic data represent reality or does it simply fit the authors’ preferred but false narrative that climate change is to blame for recent hybridization events and therefore likely to happen more often in a warmer world? And if, as I argue in my book, grizzly hybridization isn’t needed to explain polar bear evolutionary history, what does that say about similar claims that there has been a significant amount of Neanderthal interbreeding with humans in our past? Put another way, are geneticists everywhere going overboard with claims of interspecies hanky-panky?Continue reading