The international study, led by the Pennsylvania State University and the University at Buffalo, found evidence that the size of the polar bear population fluctuated with key climatic events over the past million years, growing during periods of cooling and shrinking in warmer times.
The research also suggests that while polar bears evolved into a distinct species as many as 4-5 million years ago, the animals may have interbred with brown bears until much more recently.
These intimate relations may be tied to changes in the Earth's climate, with the retreat of glaciers bringing the two species into greater contact as their ranges overlapped, said Charlotte Lindqvist, the study's senior author and an assistant professor of biological sciences at UB.
"Maybe we're seeing a hint that in really warm times, polar bears changed their life style and came into contact, and indeed interbred, with brown bears," said Stephan Schuster, co-lead author, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State, and a research scientist at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
The findings will be published online in the early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on July 23. The study is the most extensive analysis to date of polar bear DNA, scientists say. The research team, representing 13 institutions in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Asia, as well as Mexico's Laboratorio Nacional de Genomica para la Biodiversidad (Langebio), sequenced and analyzed the nuclear genomes of 28 different bears, with many DNA samples provided by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Norwegian Polar Institute.
"We generated a first-rate set of data, including deep sequence coverage for the entire genomes of a polar bear, three brown bears and a black bear, plus lower coverage of 23 additional polar bears, including a 120,000-year-old individual; very few vertebrate species have such comprehensive genomic resources available," Schuster said. Using this vast amount of data, the scientists discovered that polar bears are actually an older species than previously thought -- indeed, far more ancient than suggested by a recent study that placed the species' age at 600,000 years old. That analysis looked only at small segments of DNA.
"We showed, based on a consideration of the entire DNA sequence, that earlier inferences were entirely misleading," said study co-lead author Webb Miller, a Penn State professor of biology and computer science and engineering. "Rather than polar bears splitting from brown bears a few hundred thousand years ago, we estimate that the split occurred 4-5 million years ago."
"This means polar bears definitely persisted through warming periods during Earth's history," UB’s Lindqvist said. She cautions, however, that the species' endurance over several million years doesn't guarantee its future survival.
To model historical populations of the polar bear, the scientists used computer simulations to analyze a deeply sequenced polar bear genome.
"This is the first time we can see, from their genes, how the population history of polar bears tracked Earth's climate history," Lindqvist said. "We see an increase in polar bears at the end of the Early Pleistocene as the Earth became much colder, and a continuous decline in the size of the population during warmer times.
“We also found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that polar bears occur in much smaller numbers today than during prehistory," Lindqvist continued. "They have indeed lost a lot of their past genetic diversity, and because of this, they are very likely more sensitive to climate change threats today."
Discrepancies between the estimated age of polar bears in the new study and past studies could be explained by interbreeding between polar bears and brown bears since the species split from each other.
The new analysis uncovered more genetic similarities than previously known between polar bears and ABC brown bears, an isolated group from southeastern Alaska -- suggesting that these animals have exchanged genes since becoming separate species.
"The ABC brown bears' mitochondrial sequences are much more like polar bears' than like other brown bears'," Miller said. "This made us wonder what other parts of their genomes are 'polar-bear-like.' We mapped such regions, which constitute 5 to 10 percent of their total DNA, onto the genomes of two ABC brown bears. As such, brown/polar bear hybridization, which has been observed recently in Arctic Canada, has undoubtedly contributed to shaping the modern polar bear's evolutionary story."
This intermingling between species is just one interesting finding emerging from the enormous trove of data that the PNAS study produced. Another question that the research is beginning to address: What makes a polar bear a polar bear?
Polar bears have genetic differences from brown bears that let them survive in an Arctic climate with very different diets, and the new study identified genes that may be responsible for traits such as polar bears' pigmentation and the high fat content of their milk.
This study received financial support from Penn State University, the College of Arts and Sciences at the University at Buffalo, U.S. Geological Survey's Changing Arctic Ecosystem Initiative, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources in Canada, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.CONTACTS
Barbara Kennedy (PIO at Penn State): firstname.lastname@example.org, (+1) 814-863-4682
Charlotte Lindqvist | Newswise Science News
WAKE-UP provides new treatment option for stroke patients | International study led by UKE
17.05.2018 | Universitätsklinikum Hamburg-Eppendorf
First form of therapy for childhood dementia CLN2 developed
25.04.2018 | Universitätsklinikum Hamburg-Eppendorf
The more electronics steer, accelerate and brake cars, the more important it is to protect them against cyber-attacks. That is why 15 partners from industry and academia will work together over the next three years on new approaches to IT security in self-driving cars. The joint project goes by the name Security For Connected, Autonomous Cars (SecForCARs) and has funding of €7.2 million from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Infineon is leading the project.
Vehicles already offer diverse communication interfaces and more and more automated functions, such as distance and lane-keeping assist systems. At the same...
A research team led by physicists at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) has developed molecular nanoswitches that can be toggled between two structurally different states using an applied voltage. They can serve as the basis for a pioneering class of devices that could replace silicon-based components with organic molecules.
The development of new electronic technologies drives the incessant reduction of functional component sizes. In the context of an international collaborative...
At the LASYS 2018, from June 5th to 7th, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) will be showcasing processes for the laser material processing of tomorrow in hall 4 at stand 4E75. With blown bomb shells the LZH will present first results of a research project on civil security.
At this year's LASYS, the LZH will exhibit light-based processes such as cutting, welding, ablation and structuring as well as additive manufacturing for...
There are videos on the internet that can make one marvel at technology. For example, a smartphone is casually bent around the arm or a thin-film display is rolled in all directions and with almost every diameter. From the user's point of view, this looks fantastic. From a professional point of view, however, the question arises: Is that already possible?
At Display Week 2018, scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research IAP will be demonstrating today’s technological possibilities and...
So-called quantum many-body scars allow quantum systems to stay out of equilibrium much longer, explaining experiment | Study published in Nature Physics
Recently, researchers from Harvard and MIT succeeded in trapping a record 53 atoms and individually controlling their quantum state, realizing what is called a...
25.05.2018 | Event News
02.05.2018 | Event News
13.04.2018 | Event News
25.05.2018 | Event News
25.05.2018 | Machine Engineering
25.05.2018 | Life Sciences