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Genetic study shows major impact of climate change on Antarctic fur seals

Published on 24. Juli 2014, 09:33 h
Genetic analysis of Antarctic fur seals, alongside decades of in-depth monitoring,* has provided unique insights into the effect of climate change on a population of top-predators. Published in Nature this week, the findings show that the seals have significantly altered in accordance with changes in food availability that are associated with climate conditions. Despite a shift in the population towards ‘fitter’ individuals, this fitness is not passing down through generations, leaving the population in decline.

Antarctic fur seal. Photo: Oliver Krüger
Antarctic fur seal. Photo: Oliver Krüger
Environmental change is expected to affect many species and biological systems throughout the world. To understand these changes long-term monitoring is required. The British Antarctic Survey’s unique Long Term Monitoring and Survey programme has given researchers a rare opportunity to explore how fur seal life histories have changed over time in relation to the climate and food availability.

Researchers from the British Antarctic Survey and Bielefeld University in Germany analysed data gathered from as far back as 1981 to assess changes over generations of female fur seals on South Georgia, in the South Atlantic Ocean.

Lead author, Dr Jaume Forcada from the British Antarctic Survey explains:

“Compared with 20 years ago, we can see that female fur seals are now born with a lower weight, those that survive and return to breed tend to be the bigger ones and they have their first pup later in life than they used to. Such changes are typically associated with food stress. An important food source for the seals is Antarctic krill. Decades of data collected at South Georgia show how changes in the seal population have occurred over time with changes in krill availability. Even if krill is very abundant, environmental variation determines its availability in the seals’ feeding grounds. This environmental variation is driven by the climate which impacts local atmospheric, sea ice and oceanographic conditions. Adverse climatic conditions are typically associated with low krill availability, and reduce the survival and breeding success of fur seals.”

The researchers found that females who did survive to motherhood were likely to be more ‘heterozygous’. This is where an individual possesses a higher level of genetic variation and is associated with higher fitness in many species. Whilst these females are more likely to survive and breed, their pups will only have the same advantage if they too are heterozygous. However, the heterozygous characteristic is not inherited; it depends on which male the female mates with and so arises mostly through chance. This means that many seals are born who are not heterozygous and are therefore less able to cope with the changing environment.

Co-author, Dr Joe Hoffman from Bielefeld University explains:

“We found that, over the last two decades, the proportion of breeding females that are highly heterozygous has increased, as these individuals are more likely to survive the changing conditions. Strong selection by the environment can drive rapid evolution. However, in this case the seals do not appear to be evolving because surviving females do not pass their high heterozygosity on to their offspring. Therefore, with each new generation, the process of selection has to start all over again, with only those individuals that happen to be born more heterozygous having a good chance of survival. As the climate continues to change, many fur seal pups are not surviving to adulthood and the population is declining.”

Climate change is already altering environmental pressures on many species, and scientists do not yet know how populations will cope with these new environments. This study shows that natural selection on a fur seal population has altered as a result of climate change and that the seals have been unable to evolve in response.

* This study used fur seal biometric data (such as age, body length and weight) and their life history (including their ability to survive and breeding success); annual seal pup counts; genetic data on 1,728 seals; a decade long record of the seals’ diet and climate data from satellites. Climate variation was measured with the Southern Annular Mode (SAM) index.

Original publication:
The paper “Climate change selects for heterozygosity in a declining fur seal population” by Jaume Forcada and Joseph Ivan Hoffman is published in Nature this week.
View the paper at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature13542

Funding
This work contributes to the projects Long Term Monitoring and Survey and Ecosystems of the British Antarctic Survey, Natural Environment Research Council, core funded science programme Polar Science for Planet Earth. The genetic work was supported by a Marie Curie FP7-Reintegration-Grant within the 7th European Community Framework Programme (PCIG-GA-2011-303618) and a Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft standard grant (HO 5122/3-1) awarded to Joseph Ivan Hoffman.
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