Researchers Find Polar Bears Are Irish

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Polar bears are best known for wandering the icy expanses that once composed the Arctic Circle, but new research suggests that polar bears originated from a species of brown bear native to Ireland. The polar bear would have begun is genetic drifting from the Irish brown bear around 100,000 years ago, but the two species likely continued to come into contact up until 20,000 years ago. Though the brown bear disappeared from Britain and Ireland almost 9,000 years ago, all modern polar bears are actually descendants of the extinct species.

This Photo is in the Public Domain

According to the press release put out by the research team, “Beth Shapiro, the Shaffer Associate Professor of Biology at Penn State University and one of the team’s leaders, explained that climate changes affecting the North Atlantic ice sheet probably gave rise to periodic overlaps in bear habitats. These overlaps then led to hybridization, or interbreeding — an event that caused maternal DNA from brown bears to be introduced into polar bears.” The researchers believe that this hybridization occurred over a span of 30,000 years before the two species finally and permanently parted ways around 20,000 years ago.

These genetic discoveries dispel previous beliefs regarding the polar bear’s origins, which placed the specie’s ancestor on a collection of Alaskan islands (Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof) as recently as 14,000 years ago. Few would have guessed that the truth could be found on the very opposite side of the Arctic Circle. The discovery that the polar bear is in fact Irish, rather than Alaskan, will probably surprise zoologists and zoo visitors alike.

Swimming polar bear at the NC Zoo in Asheboro, NC (Source: Flickr)

As global temperatures continue to rise and the ice caps of the arctic diminish, the polar bear’s ancestry could be vital to its future. As the hunting grounds of this northern predator disappear, they could begin to travel south where they will inevitably come in contact with brown bears once again. Researchers anticipate the immersion of a new hybridization between these modern bears, repeating a phenomenon that has occurred intermittingly over the last 100,000 years as global warming and cooling cycles have come and gone. The polar bear’s ancestral history could be the key to preventing the species from disappearing from the planet forever.

TreeHugger

Swimming polar bear photo: Flickr


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