Reading the Past from DNA
“Genetics is opening the door to a huge storehouse of historical information about whales,?says Steve Palumbi of Stanford University. Palumbi has applied new genetic techniques to penetrate over a million years of whale history dating back to the middle of the last series of Ice Ages.
Using whale samples from the Japanese meat market, where Antarctic minke whales killed for “scientific research?are legally sold as food, Palumbi examined variations in mitochondrial DNA from individual whales. He was amazed at their genetic variation ?an indicator of the past size of their population. Piecing together their ancient family trees, he has discovered that the Antarctic population of minke whales is now the longest surviving whale population on earth. It was also once the largest—many times larger than other estimates.
This information is critical to current discussions of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) because some argue that the recent surge in minke populations is unprecedented and is hampering the recovery of other whales, pointing to the need for resumed whaling. Yet the whales?varied DNA reveals a different story, a past with an ocean teeming with whales.
It also shows a steadily growing population, with drastic declines only showing up in recent history. “Whales have shown remarkable resilience to cataclysmic events - until the last one ?which is us,?says