Grolar Bears Just the Start? Melting Arctic Ice May Lead to More Hybrid Marine Mammals

arctic ice polar bear photo

Photo by US Geological Survey via Flickr Creative Commons

What happens when a continent-sized natural barrier between similar animal species suddenly disappears? In the case of disappearing arctic ice, the result is likely to be new hybrid species of marine animals, according to researchers published in the journal Nature. Grolar bears (part grizzly, part polar) are already making news, and the team of researchers from NOAA, University of Alaska and University of Massachusetts, Amherst believe that this is just the start when it comes to polar species from seals to whales.
The University of Massachusetts, Amherst reports that marine mammalogist and first author Brendan Kelly of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's marine mammal lab in Juneau, with conservation geneticist Andrew Whiteley of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and evolutionary biologist David Tallmon of the University of Alaska, believe that the genes that set similar species apart to allow them to thrive in different habitats will start to blend a little as those habitats merge. As ice disappears, we'll likely see hybridization and interbreeding of species that could help some species, while wiping out others.

"In some cases hybridization, which is one of nature's sources of evolutionary novelty, might not be so bad, the authors acknowledge. But in other cases such as interbreeding between the rare North Pacific right whale, with fewer than 200 individuals believed to be left, and more numerous bowhead whales, interbreeding could mean extinction of the rarer, smaller population."

The team identified 22 marine mammal species that are at risk of hybridization as ice barriers disappear, turning the area into what they aptly call the "Arctic melting pot." While their research doesn't state that this is already occurring on a wide scale (the grolar bear is just one instance thus far), the research does state that such hybridization is a potential consequence of the changing ecosystems. And it makes sense -- as a species' habitat is changed to the point that it is difficult for them to survive, or that their specialized features are no longer necessary or helpful, a similar species that can carry on their genes will likely look attractive. It is one of the many areas scientists will be monitoring as global climate change alters our planet.

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