Polar bears

Polar bears are among earth’s most magnificent and distinctive species. Their power and austere beauty have made them symbols of the frozen north.

In recent years, polar bears have gained an incredible amount of attention worldwide. Because of their instant appeal, as well as their critical role at the top of the Arctic’s food chain, these apex predators have become the iconic species in understanding impacts of climate change on the environment.

The polar bear’s central role in the lives and cultures of Native Peoples across the Arctic further heighten concerns as to their ability to deal with the loss of sea ice, changes in prey availability, and increasing human activities in this region. As a response, there is an urgent need for sound scientific data.

We are working with Andrew VonDuyke and Robert Suydam at the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management in Alaska to twin field biology with molecular genetics to conduct community-based genetic fingerprinting of polar bears in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. Intrigued? Read on..

polar bear

Andrew VonDuyke,

North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management

Currently, our collaborators and supporters include:

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Polar bears travel huge distances, often crossing international boundaries, across ice and along Arctic coastlines.

Alaska

Their low density numbers combined with the high cost of catching and tagging bears has created obstacles for understanding the movement patterns and habitat use of individual bears.

polar bear tracks

Wildlife Evolution and Behavior have teamed up with The North Slope Borough’s Department of Wildlife Management in Alaska to apply modern genetic profiling techniques to studying polar bears in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, ground zero for sea-ice loss in the Arctic.

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What is genetic profiling?

 

The ability to identify individuals in a population using DNA markers, most commonly in non coding regions. With enough markers (or loci), an individual's genetic profile is a unique identifier, like a fingerprint.

How to track a stealth predator: 

Working with Alaska Natives, the team has set up a number of ‘hair trap’ stations along Alaska’s coast to passively collect hair from inquisitive bears. 

polar bear set hair snare
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polar bear hair

These precious hair samples are then sent to the web lab for DNA extraction and genetic profiling.

Andrew VonDuyke,

North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management

Andrew VonDuyke,

North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management

Andrew VonDuyke,

North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management

The team has launched an ambitious project that aims to use SNP genotyping to genetically ‘fingerprint’ bears from their collected hair, providing a novel approach to indirectly track the movements of bears, estimate population size, and other important life history parameters in the most unobtrusive way possible.

SNP haplotype profile

SNP haplotype profile

 

What is a SNP?

 

Single nucleotide polymporphisms (SNPs) are individual base pair changes that occur throughout the genome. 

SNPs are the most common polymorphism found in DNA, so large numbers of SNPs need to be analyzed for genetic profiling of individuals. 

SNP plate setup

SNP panel plate setup

 

For the past two decades, microsatellite loci have been the marker of choice for genetically profiling polar bears. Therefore, we decided to investigate the utility of SNPs compared to the traditional microsatellites. 

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What is a microsatellite?

 

Also known as short tandem repeats (STRs), they are fragments of DNA found in nuclear loci that vary in the number of tandem copies of a repeated sequence. 

microsatellite allele profile for 4 samples

 

Our objective is to compare the new SNP technology to traditional microsatellite methods.

 

We will calibrate the SNP genotypes to the microsatellite genotypes in order to ensure comparability across projects and to determine the minimum number of SNPs required for individual ID and preliminary kinship studies.

Our final goal will be to establish repeatable assays for polar bear SNP panels. 

Special thanks to Andrew VonDuyke and the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management for allowing us to post their photos.