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Published July 10, 2009 10:15 AM

Seals quickly respond to habitat and climate change

During a time of change, the seals established a new breeding site thousands of kilometres from existing breeding grounds when

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.

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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."

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