Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: Making sense of polar bears’ origins

Polar bear. Photo by ucumari.

This week at the collaborative blog Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, contributor Noah Reid goes in-depth on the recent study pinpointing the historical origins of polar bears, and why it’s taken the most recent systematic methods to correctly pinpoint them.

From 2008 to 2010, a series of algorithms were published that could take data from multiple genes and infer the history of whole populations, a drastic improvement over previous methods that could only identify the history of single genes (e.g. mtDNA). With these methods in mind, a group of researchers gathered data from 14 nuclear genes for multiple extant brown and polar bear populations (Hailer 2012). … the new data analyzed with the new method suggested that polar bears diverged far earlier than previously thought (around 600 thousand years ago) and that they were no longer closely related to the southeast Alaska population, but rather to the common ancestor of all brown bear populations.

For more details, including a nice brief explanation of why it can be important to use multiple genes in reconstructing relationships among species, go read the whole thing.◼