Circumpolar genetic structure and recent gene flow of polar bears: A reanalysis
PLoS ONE , Volume 11 - Issue 3
Recently, an extensive study of 2,748 polar bears (Ursus maritimus) from across their circumpolar range was published in PLOS ONE, which used microsatellites and mitochondrial haplotypes to apparently show altered population structure and a dramatic change in directional gene flow towards the Canadian Archipelago - an area believed to be a future refugium for polar bears as their southernmost habitats decline under climate change. Although this study represents a major international collaborative effort and promised to be a baseline for future genetics work, methodological shortcomings and errors of interpretation undermine some of the study's main conclusions. Here, we present a reanalysis of this data in which we address some of these issues, including: (1) highly unbalanced sample sizes and large amounts of systematically missing data; (2) incorrect calculation of FSTand of significance levels; (3) misleading estimates of recent gene flow resulting from non-convergence of the program BAYESASS. In contrast to the original findings, in our reanalysis we find six genetic clusters of polar bears worldwide: the Hudson Bay Complex, the Western and Eastern Canadian Arctic Archipelago, the Western and Eastern Polar Basin, and - importantly - we reconfirm the presence of a unique and possibly endangered cluster of bears in Norwegian Bay near Canada's expected last sea-ice refugium. Although polar bears' abundance, distribution, and population structure will certainly be negatively affected by ongoing - and increasingly rapid - loss of Arctic sea ice, these genetic data provide no evidence of strong directional gene flow in response to recent climate change.