The DNA of polar bears potentially traces back to an Irish brown bear about 20,000 to 50,0000 years ago.
ScienceDaily — An international team of scientists has discovered that the female ancestor of all living polar bears was a brown bear that lived in the vicinity of present-day Britain and Ireland just prior to the peak of the last ice age -- 20,000 to 50,000 years ago. 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 research, which is led by Shapiro and Daniel Bradley of Trinity College Dublin, is expected to help guide future conservation efforts for polar bears, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The results of the study will be published on 7 July 2011 in the journal Current Biology.
Polar and brown bears are vastly different species in terms of body size, skin and coat color, fur type, tooth structure, and many other physical features. Behaviorally, they are also quite distinct: Polar bears are expert swimmers that have adapted to a highly specialized, arctic lifestyle, while brown bears -- a species that includes Grizzlies and Kodiaks -- are climbers that prefer the mountain forests, wilderness regions, and river valleys of Europe, Asia, and North America. "Despite these differences, we know that the two species have interbred opportunistically and probably on many occasions during the last 100,000 years," Shapiro said. "Most importantly, previous research has indicated that the brown bear contributed genetic material to the polar bear's mitochondrial lineage -- the maternal part of the genome, or the DNA that is passed exclusively from mothers to offspring. But, until now, it was unclear just when modern polar bears acquired their mitochondrial genome in its present form."