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Climate change threatens genetic diversity, future of world's caribou

Caribou in southern and eastern Canada may disappear from most of their current range in 60 years if climate change takes the toll on their habitat that scientists predict in a paper appearing online Dec. 15 in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Scientists looked at reservoirs of genetic diversity in caribou and whether that diversity was linked to stable habitats. They found that caribou populations in the most climatically stable areas had the greatest genetic diversity and note that future climate forecasts bode ill for both caribou habitat and their genes.

"Caribou can respond to habitat change in three ways," said Kris Hundertmark, co-author and wildlife biologist-geneticist at the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "They can move to new, suitable habitat, adapt to the changed habitat or die."

Caribou populations are predicted to become more isolated and fragmented as climate change shrinks habitat and as caribou have fewer opportunities for genes to flow between individuals and herds, explained Hundertmark.

"When a population loses genetic diversity, they lose the ability to adapt to change," Hundertmark said, adding that although Alaska herds are expected to fair slightly better at least in the near future, they are still facing significant challenges.

"Climate change in Alaska means we're going to see more fires and while that's good for moose, it's really bad for caribou," said Hundertmark, "because it's going to burn lichen beds that can take at least 50 years to recover and reduce viable caribou habitat."

Hundertmark and then-graduate student Karen Mager who collected 655 tissues samples from 20 of Alaska's 32 herds developed genetic profiles of Alaska's caribou. The two credit a successful collaboration with state and federal fish and game biologists and hunters over several years with making sample collection possible.

The scientists, part of a team headed by researchers at Laval University in Quebec, used climate reconstructions from 21,000 years ago to the present to predict where caribou habitat would likely exist and they matched reservoirs of high genetic diversity to areas with the most stable habitat over time.

Bolstered by the success of their retrospective analysis the scientists forecast caribou habitat to the year 2080 using a 'business-as-usual' climate model the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's A1B model. The outcome is grim.

"Those caribou herds that shift their range to remain within their habitat and those herds that are reduced in size and become isolated from neighboring herds are those most threatened with loss of genetic diversity," said Hundertmark. "That is why it is important to know what areas will be have the most habitat stability in the future."

The team predicts that viable caribou habitat will shift north, the southernmost herds will disappear and herds in northeastern North America will become more threatened with extinction, losing up to 89% of their current habitat.

Caribou in western North America will also be affected, although to a lesser extent, and have a better chance of retaining what remains of genetic diversity and therefore adaptability to change.

"This study gives us strong evidence from a widespread species that the stability of the climate makes a difference in the amount of genetic diversity retained within a species," said Mager.


Contact: Marie Thoms
University of Alaska Fairbanks

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