Sunday, 14 April 2013

Ice Age bowhead whales' survival surprises scientists

By Michelle Warwicker, BBC Nature

Ancient DNA shows that bowhead whales bucked the trend to survive the last Ice Age, say scientists.

The demise of cold-adapted land mammals such as mammoths has been linked to rising temperatures around 11,000 years ago.

But researchers were surprised to find a contrasting population boom for whales living off the coast of Britain.

Their study is also the first to discover that the ocean giants lived in the southern North Sea.
Dr Andy Foote from the Natural History Museum of Denmark, based at the University of Copenhagen co-authored the paper published in the journal Nature Communications.

"Based on all previous studies using ancient DNA to estimate the population size... it seems the trend was for cold-adapted species either [to] go extinct or decline in numbers at the end of the Ice Age as the temperature increased," said Dr Foote.

Arctic Britain
But while the fate of now-extinct land-based Ice Age animals is well documented, little has been known about how marine animals were affected by the rapid temperature warming.
Bowhead whales today are found in Arctic seas and rely on sea ice where they feed on tiny crustaceans.

The research team wanted to find out how the whales fared during the rapid climate change of the Pleistocene-Holocene epoch transition when the essential sea ice retreated from their North Sea habitat.

Scientists analysed ancient DNA of partly-fossilised whale remains found in waters between Britain and Holland and around Denmark and Sweden.

They were able to use the data to create a habitat prediction model and build a picture of the whales' past movements and probability of survival.

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