Southern Elephant seals responded rapidly to climate and habitat change and established a new breeding site thousands of kilometres from existing breeding grounds, according to new research.
An international research team, including post-doctorate Dr Mark de Bruyn and collaborators from the US, South Africa and Italy, led by Professor Rus Hoelzel from the School of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Durham University, found that when the Antarctic ice sheets of the Ross Sea Embayment retreated in the Holocene period 8,000 years ago, elephant seals, Mirounga leonina, adopted the emergent habitat and established a new population which flourished.
DNA sequences from the ancient remains of seals from the now extinct Antarctic colony showed high levels of genetic diversity, probably due to the very large population size sustained there. The study, published in the academic journal PLoS Genetics, and funded by the US National Science Foundation, shows how environmental change can drive the demographic and evolutionary processes that determine diversity within and among species.
Tracking these processes during periods of change reveals mechanisms for the establishment of populations, and provides predictive data on response to potential future impacts, including those caused by climate change.
Professor Rus Hoelzel said: "In general, this approach of looking to the past to understand what might happen in the future, has good potential for predicting the impact of environmental change in both marine and terrestrial systems.
"We've shown how a highly mobile marine species responded to the gain and loss of new breeding habitat. The new habitat was quickly adopted, probably because seals migrate annually into Antarctic waters to feed. However, when the ice returned and the habitat was lost, only a small proportion returned to the original source population. The Antarctic population crashed and much diversit
|Contact: Carl Stiansen|