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Ecol Appl. 2008 Mar;18(2 Suppl):S56-76.

Climate change and the molecular ecology of Arctic marine mammals.

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  • 1Southwest Fisheries Science Center, 8604 La Jolla Shores Drive, La Jolla, California 92037, USA.


Key to predicting likely consequences of future climate change for Arctic marine mammals is developing a detailed understanding of how these species use their environment today and how they were affected by past climate-induced environmental change. Genetic analyses are uniquely placed to address these types of questions. Molecular genetic approaches are being used to determine distribution and migration patterns, dispersal and breeding behavior, population structure and abundance over time, and the effects of past and present climate change in Arctic marine mammals. A review of published studies revealed that population subdivision, dispersal, and gene flow in Arctic marine mammals was shaped primarily by evolutionary history, geography, sea ice, and philopatry to predictable, seasonally available resources. A meta-analysis of data from 38 study units across seven species found significant relationships between neutral genetic diversity and population size and climate region, revealing that small, isolated subarctic populations tend to harbor lower diversity than larger Arctic populations. A few small populations had substantially lower diversity than others. By contrast, other small populations retain substantial neutral diversity despite extensive population declines in the 19th and 20th centuries. The evolutionary and contemporary perspectives gained from these studies can be used to model the consequences of different climate projections for individual behavior and population structure and ultimately individual fitness and population viability. Future research should focus on: (1) the use of ancient-DNA techniques to directly reconstruct population histories through the analysis of historical and prehistorical material, (2) the use of genomic technologies to identify, map, and survey genes that directly influence fitness, (3) long-term studies to monitor populations and investigate evolution in contemporary time, (4) further Arctic-wide, multispecies analyses, preferably across different taxa and trophic levels, and (5) the use of genetic parameters in population and species risk analyses.

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