Research Project: Application of next-generation technologies to conservation genomics of polar bears (Ursus maritimus)
Among polar bears (Ursus maritimus), female reproductive success is largely influenced by cub survival, owing to a long period of juvenile–dam association, high maternal investment, and correspondingly low reproductive rates. Cub survival is in turn heavily influenced by the cub’s mass—as well as the mass of its mother due to energy transfer via lactation—with natural selection typically favouring heavier cubs and mothers. In the southerly Western Hudson Bay subpopulation, however, polar bears have started to decline in size and condition, and this is generally attributed to reduction in available hunting time due to earlier sea ice breakup. The global distribution of polar bears is also expected to change in response to warming-induced habitat loss. Although the IUCN has recognized genetic diversity as an important conservation concern and all polar bear nations have committed to conservation based on sound scientific principles, to date, genetics has largely been neglected and decisions based on a handful of anonymous neutral markers (i.e., microsatellites).
The aim of my project, therefore, is to develop genomics tools to assess the genetic status of polar bear populations. The specific objectives are: 1) to identify new genetic markers by re-sequencing the polar bear genome and to develop a high-throughput array for genotyping these markers, 2) to use this array to reassess global polar bear population structure and key parameters such as effective population size, and 3) to identify genes associated with fitness and test for adverse anthropogenic impacts (e.g., due to climate change or harvesting) on polar bear population genomics. To this end, we have used RAD and transcriptome sequencing to develop a 9,000-SNP chip for polar bears, comprising markers in non-coding regions and markers in fitness-related genes (e.g., for growth, lipid metabolism, etc.). We will use this new genomics tool together with globally collected tissue samples and long-term data from the Western Hudson Bay subpopulation in order to address these questions.
This is among the largest conservation genomics projects ever undertaken. Outcomes will contribute to our understanding of the genetic health of polar bears and their capacity to adapt to a rapidly changing Arctic, and they will have direct implications for management decisions.
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