Musk ox population decline due to climate, not to humans, study finds
Published: Monday, March 8, 2010 - 15:34 in Paleontology & Archaeology
A team of scientists has discovered that the drastic decline in Arctic musk ox populations that began roughly 12,000 years ago was due to a warming climate rather than to human hunting. "This is the first study to use ancient musk ox DNA collected from across the animal's former geographic range to test for human impacts on musk ox populations," said Beth Shapiro, the Shaffer Career Development assistant professor of biology at Penn State University and one of the team's leaders. "We found that, although human and musk ox populations overlapped in ...view middle of the document...
To conduct their research, the team collected musk ox bones and other remains from animals that lived during different times -- up to 60,000 years ago -- and from animals that lived across the species' former range. From these remains, the scientists isolated and analyzed the mitochondrial DNA, which is useful for studying ancient population dynamics due to its rapid rate of evolutionary change. The scientists also isolated and analyzed the mitochondrial DNA of musk oxen that are alive today. They then used a Bayesian statistical approach to estimate how the amount of genetic diversity of the musk oxen populations changed through time.
"Over the past decade, ancient DNA studies have matured, moving away from simply identifying animals to actually giving us insights into the population size and dynamics of animals, stretching back over the last 100,000 years," said Tom Gilbert, an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and another of the team's leaders. "Thanks to significant computational developments made by colleagues of ours, we have the fantastic opportunity to watch what happened to the ancient populations. When did they increase, or decrease, and at what rate?" he said.
Scientists believe that a reduction in genetic diversity of an animal's population can reflect a decrease in the size of the population. By estimating when the genetic diversity of musk oxen began to decline, the team was able to test whether the decline was due to the arrival of humans in a particular region or to some other effect. The scientists found that the genetic diversity of the musk ox was much higher during the...