Genetic Study Reveals the Polar Bear is Old Enough to Have Survived Several Glacial Cycles
Hailer, F., Kutschera, V.E., Hallstrom, B.E., Klassert, D., Fain, S.R., Leonard, J.A., Arnason, U. and Janke, A. 2012. Nuclear genomic sequences reveal that polar bears are an old and distinct bear lineage. Science 336: 344-347.
Writing as background for their paper, Hailer et al. (2012) state that "recent studies have shown that the polar bear matriline (mitochondrial DNA) evolved from a brown bear lineage since the late Pleistocene, potentially indicating rapid speciation and adaption to arctic conditions," but would analysis of nuclear genes (the kind found on chromosomes) yield the same answer? Two previous estimates for the timing of this brown bear/polar bear split, based on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), suggest a relatively recent speciation event, approximately 134,000 and 160,000 years ago, respectively (Lindqvist et al. 2010 and Davison et al., 2011). Both of these estimates seem consistent with the date of the oldest polar bear fossil (a mandible found in Svalbard, Norway), about 110,000-130,000 years old.
In exploring this issue further, Hailer and colleagues sampled nuclear DNA from 19 polar bears, 18 brown bears (also called grizzlies) and 7 black bears representing the main mitochondrial lineages (clades) of living bears. They also sequenced 14 different nuclear genes (9116 nucleotides total) and constructed a species tree from the data generated. Then, they sequenced and analyzed a short segment of mtDNA (640 base pairs, from the control region). So what did they learn?
Hailer et al. found less genetic variation within polar bears than within brown bears or black bears and also that "numerous nuclear haplotypes were unique to polar bears." These results suggest that the polar bear is a genetically distinct lineage. The calculated median divergence date for polar bears and brown bears was approximately 603,000 years, based on a range of 334,000-934,000 years, suggesting that polar bears are older than previously estimated from mtDNA and fossil data.
Given such findings, the authors conclude that "an evolutionary origin several hundred thousand years ago implies that polar bears as a species have experienced multiple glacial cycles and have had considerable time to adapt to arctic conditions." The study indicates that polar bears have not only survived several very cold glacial and warm interglacial periods (with the associated changes in sea ice conditions) but also the transitions between them. In other words, the results of the Hailer et al. study indicate that the polar bear has survived many changes in its sea ice habitat over its evolutionary history, which suggests it may be more resilient to future changes than has been predicted (Derocher et al. 2004).
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