Alaska Science Center
Implications of the circumpolar genetic structure of polar bears for their conservation in a rapidly warming Arctic
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Full Publication: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0112021
Product Type: Journal Article
Authors: Peacock, E., S. A. Sonsthagen, M. E. Obbard, A. N. Boltunov, E. V. Regehr, N. Ovsyanikov, J. Aars, S. N. Atkinson, G. K. Sage, A. G. Hope, E. Zeyl, L. Bachmann, D. Ehrich, K. T. Scribner, S. C. Amstrup, S. E. Belikov, E. W. Born, A. E. Derocher, I. Stirling, M. K. Taylor, Ø. Wiig, D. Paetkau, and S. L. Talbot
We provide an expansive analysis of polar bear (Ursus maritimus) circumpolar genetic variation during the last two decades of decline in their sea-ice habitat. We sought to evaluate whether their genetic diversity and structure have changed over this period of habitat decline, how their current genetic patterns compare with past patterns, and how genetic demography changed with ancient fluctuations in climate. Characterizing their circumpolar genetic structure using microsatellite data, we defined four clusters that largely correspond to current ecological and oceanographic factors: Eastern Polar Basin, Western Polar Basin, Canadian Archipelago and Southern Canada. We document evidence for recent (ca. last 1-3 generations) directional gene flow from Southern Canada and the Eastern Polar Basin towards the Canadian Archipelago, an area hypothesized to be a future refugium for polar bears as climate-induced habitat decline continues. Our data provide empirical evidence in support of this hypothesis. The direction of current gene flow differs from earlier patterns of gene flow in the Holocene. From analyses of mitochondrial DNA, the Canadian Archipelago cluster and the Barents Sea subpopulation within the Eastern Polar Basin cluster did not show signals of population expansion, suggesting these areas may have served also as past interglacial refugia. Mismatch analyses of mitochondrial DNA data from polar and the paraphyletic brown bear (U. arctos) uncovered offset signals in timing of population expansion between the two species, that are attributed to differential demographic responses to past climate cycling. Mitogenomic structure of polar bears was shallow and developed recently, in contrast to the multiple clades of brown bears. We found no genetic signatures of recent hybridization between the species in our large, circumpolar sample, suggesting that recently observed hybrids represent localized events. Documenting changes in subpopulation connectivity will allow polar nations to proactively adjust conservation actions to continuing decline in sea-ice habitat.