Pizzly, grolars or "capuccino bears" are common names of the offspring resulting from the mating of grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) and polar bears (Ursus maritimus). "Such hybrids among bears are not as rare as we have hitherto assumed," says Prof. Dr. Axel Janke of the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Center in Frankfurt. In a large-scale analysis, a team of scientists led by the German evolutionary geneticist has sequenced six complete bear genomes. Each genome is about 2.5 billion base pairs large. "With these new data of the sun bear, sloth bear, Asiatic black bear and spectacled bear, we now have the genomes of all known bear species," adds Janke.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
It has previously been assumed that the number of hybrids between polar and brown bears is increasing due to climate change, because brown bears invade northern regions and polar bears move onto the sea ice later than usual. The new results show however that an abundant flow of genes among different bear species occurred to a good deal in the past. Hybrids are thus not necessarily linked to climate change.
Copyright: Alexander Kopatz
The new genomic data also show that there must have even been gene flow between the polar and sun bears. However, the two species live in geographically completely distinct areas and thus have never met. The researchers are able to explain this alleged contradiction by suggesting that an "intermediate host" or "vector species" has passed the genes on in various directions.
The detected gene flow among bears also questions the basic biological concept of a species. The biological species definition assumes that different species cannot produce offspring in the wild or that hybrid offspring are sterile. The best-known example of this is the mule – a hybrid between a horse and a donkey.
It is certain that the amazing progress of genomics and its technology will also question other fundamental principles of biology and fuel research. "Evolution creates genetic differences and adaptations, whether we call these differences species or not, is less important. What we must preserve, however, is genetic variation to protect diversity and to allow adaptation to future environmental changes", Janke states.
Contacts and sources:
Citation: Kumar, V. et al. (2017): The evolutionary history of bears is characterized by gene flow across species. Scientific Reports 7, 46487, doi: 10.1038/srep46487