Frozen DNA shows climate change has caused Arctic species to become extinct

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A trio of woolly mammoths roam snow-covered hills. Behind them, snow-capped mountains rise above dark green fir forests. (Photo credit: Daniel Eskridge)

New international research on changes in plants and animals over the past 50,000 years suggests that climate change has been a major driver of extinction and loss of diversity in the North.

land and sea meet
Modern arctic landscape (Photo credit: Inger Greve Alsos)

“The disappearance of large animals in the Arctic, the so-called ‘charismatic megafauna’ like woolly mammoths, has fascinated scientists for decades,” said the co-author David W. Beilman, professor and undergraduate chair of the Department of Geography and Environment at the University of Hawaii at the Mānoa College of Social Sciences. “Use canned DNA icy lakes and frozen ground, extended periods have been found – over thousands of years – where megafauna and humans coexisted in the same region, suggesting that rapid changes in climate and habitat were the main drivers of the extinction of large animals.

The scientific article was published on October 20 in Nature, the world’s leading multidisciplinary scientific journal.

Fifty researchers from Europe and North America studied changes in DNA plants and animals preserved throughout the Arctic. Cutting-edge technology applied on an unprecedented scale has been used to better understand sensitive populations and ecosystems, as well as the impact of climate change.

Walk from Maui to Moloka’i

containers in ziploc bags
A selection of sediments collected from arctic sites (Photo credit: Yucheng Wang)

What was Hawaii like 25,000 years ago during the Ice Age?

“There was an ice cap on Maunakea and the sea level was so low that the animals could walk from Maui to Moloka’iBeilman said. “It was a time of rapid warming, multiple extinctions and the first human migrations across the Arctic.”

Because the polar regions are warming much faster than the global average, Beilman said drastic changes often happen there first and can be seen as a glimpse of what might happen elsewhere.

“The lesson warns of the scope of climate change spreading to all corners of the globe,” he said. “Even those like the Arctic and Antarctic – which we consider far from the hot and crowded places of the world – are driving climate change today.”

This work is an example of EUH Mānoa’s research excellence goal: to advance the research and creative work enterprise (PDF), one of the four objectives identified in the 2015-25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.

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