Bowhead whales cross from Atlantic to Pacific regularly25/10/2012 14:20:07 First range-wide study of bowhead whale genetics finds much genetic diversity lost during age of commercial whaling
October 2012. Scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society, the American Museum of Natural History, City University of New York, and other organizations have published the first range-wide genetic analysis of the bowhead whale using hundreds of samples from both modern populations and archaeological sites used by indigenous Arctic hunters thousands of years ago.Ancient DNA samples
In addition to using DNA samples collected from whales over the past 20 years, the team collected genetic samples from ancient specimens -extracted from old vessels, toys, and housing material made from baleen-preserved in pre-European settlements in the Canadian Arctic. The study attempts to shed light on the impacts of sea ice and commercial whaling on this threatened but now recovering species. The study appears in the most recent edition of Ecology and Evolution.
"Our study represents the first genetic analysis of bowheads across their entire range," said Elizabeth Alter, the study's lead author and now a professor at City University of New York. "The study also illustrates the value of ancient DNA in answering questions about the impact of changing climate and human exploitation on genetic diversity in bowhead whales."
5 separate populations studied
The team also used DNA gathered from relics found at the now-abandoned settlements of the Thule people (the likely ancestors of the Inuit) on Somerset Island on the western side of Prince Regent Inlet. The site was inhabited between 500-800 years before the present. Existing data from older DNA samples from Spitsbergen (some 3,000 years in age) samples were also used in the analysis.
The ancient samples from Prince Regent Inlet were brought to the lab at AMNH's Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, where researchers isolated and amplified segments of mitochondrial DNA, which is passed on exclusively through the maternal lines of a population.
Disappearance of unique maternal lineages over the past 500 years
Populations mix freely across the Arctic
"The assumption that Arctic sea ice has separated bowhead whale populations over the past several thousand years is contradicted by the genetic analysis, which indicates that significant migration between Atlantic and Pacific populations has recently taken place," said Dr. Howard Rosenbaum, Director of WCS's Ocean Giants Program and senior author on the study. "The finding reveals much about the abilities of bowheads to find navigable routes through sea ice and helps illuminate hidden connections between populations."
The authors point out that understanding the effects of shifting sea ice conditions and commercial whaling are important for future management decisions for the bowhead whale, particularly in light of the disappearance of sea ice due to climate change, maritime tourism, and increased shipping in the Arctic environment.
Protected since 1946
The authors include: Elizabeth Alter of the City University of New York; Howard C. Rosenbaum of the Wildlife Conservation Society and the American Museum of Natural History; Lianne Postma, Melissa Lindsay, and Larry Dueck of Fisheries and Oceans Canada; Peter Whitridge of the Memorial University of Newfoundland; Cork Gaines, Diana Weber, Mary Egan, and George Amato of the American Museum of Natural History's Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics; Robert Brownell Jr. and Brittany Hancock of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center (National Marine Fisheries Service/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration); Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen and Kristin Laidre of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources; and Gisella Caccone of Yale University.
In addition to novel bowhead whale genetic research, WCS is working to advance conservation initiatives for Arctic marine mammals in general. Through its Ocean Giants Program and Arctic Beringia Program-a transboundary initiative that works closely with scientists, government agencies, indigenous groups and others from North America and the Russian Federation, -WCS is working to strengthen Arctic research and governance efforts, while evaluating the potential impacts of disappearing sea ice and increased anthropogenic activities, such as shipping, on whales, walrus, and other marine wildlife, as well as the indigenous communities that have lived in the region for millennia.