Penguins cope with climate change
chowdawg | October 14, 2008 at 02:44 pmby
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David Lambert and a team from Griffith University in Brisbane is studying penguin DNA taken from 37,000-year-old bones preserved in the ice of Antarctica. They are comparing this old DNA to that of living birds and are learning that the penguins evolve faster than previously thought, posing a potential explanation for their ability to survive extreme variations in climate.
Adelie penguins are a good model to study change for a number of reasons: they are one of very few species that have survived in large numbers over such a long time; they have lived through climate change before in the past history of the species; they have stayed in the same geographical location for a very long time.
DNA in the bones of Adelie penguins that survived the last ice age are helping to shed light on how other animals will cope with climate change, say researchers.
Evolutionary biologist Professor David Lambert of Griffith University in Brisbane and colleagues report their analysis of Adelie penguin DNA dating back to 37,000 years in the journal PLoS Genetics.
"Adelie penguins are a wonderful model to study the problem of climate change," said Lambert. "They have lived through temperature fluctuations much higher than those in equatorial regions."
Lambert said Adelie penguins have survived several degrees of warming since the last glacial maximum 18,000 years ago. And he expects them to have been around 120,000 years earlier than that, during the peak of the ice age before last.
If species are able to move geographically, there is evidence that they can combat climate change by staying within their preferred temperature range, he added. "The problem for Adelie penguins is they've got nowhere to go," he said. "They're in the coldest place they can be."
The fact Adelie penguins have survived extreme changes in temperature may mean that some species are able to respond to climate change even when they can't move geographically.
The team analyzed the number of mutations in the mitochondrial DNA of mothers and their chicks and compared this with DNA from ancestral penguins, taken from 37,000-year-old bones preserved in the extreme cold and dry conditions of Antarctica.
They found the rate of mutations between generations was the same as the rate over 37,000 years. This is contrary to recent suggestions that evolution is faster over short time frames but slows down over long time frames, when the loss of genetic diversity due to speciation is taken into account.
Importantly, the rate of evolution of Adelie penguins found by Lambert and the team confirm earlier findings that the penguins evolve faster than previously thought, which may be one explanation for their ability to survive extreme variations in climate.
These so-called "neutral" genes are important in developing an evenly ticking "molecular clock" for evolution, said Lambert. Sequences under control of natural selection would change rapidly during some periods of time and hardly change at all at other periods.
Adélie penguins can be found along most of the Antarctic coast and are among the most southerly distributed of all seabirds. They are named for the wife of the French explorer Jules Dumont d'Urville who visited Antarctica in 1830.
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