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Arctic puffins evolved into a new species 6 generations ago, but they might be less fit to survive, a new study shows

Maiya Focht   

Arctic puffins evolved into a new species 6 generations ago, but they might be less fit to survive, a new study shows
  • Scientists analyzed Atlantic puffin genes and found they had been interbreeding in recent history.
  • They traced the first hybrid puffin back to 1910, after climate change had started to grip the globe.

They're small, they're cute, and they're evolving right before our eyes — a hybrid species of Atlantic puffins that formed in the last century was recently discovered by scientists.

The hybrid group formed when two of three subspecies of Atlantic puffins began mating six generations ago, around 1910, according to a study published in the journal Science Advances.

It probably began happening when climate change affected one of the subspecies' habitats, sending them to mingle with another group, the study detailed.

Atlantic puffins' evolution isn't necessarily for the better

The authors also found that all three subspecies of puffin that live around the Atlantic Ocean have been losing genetic diversity over the past century.

This could make them less fit to survive in the future, Oliver Kersten, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oslo who led the research, told Insider.

Decreased genetic diversity can harm sperm quality across a population, decrease birth rates, and make the organisms within a group more susceptible to disease and parasites, according to multiple studies. All of these factors can make a group less resilient to climate change, and more likely to face extinction.

It's important to study the genetic changes happening in puffins right now so we can best plan for how to protect, "such an iconic species," Kersten said.

A genetic map for Atlantic puffins

Other species in the Arctic have hybridized, like the beluga whale and polar bear, but this is the first time that scientists have been able to track how an Arctic species' genes have changed over time because of hybridization, Kersten said.

Without genetics, researchers might never know how puffins are changing in response to their unique environment since the different subspecies look very similar, Kersten said.

But genes don't lie. When you compare the genetics of the two subspecies to their new offspring, you get a map of how the hybrid species formed, and how they're currently living.

From 40,000 years ago to the 20th century

What their analysis found is that the original three subspecies began diverging from one another roughly 40,000 years ago. That likely corresponds to the breakup of an ancient glacier over the Arctic, Kersten told Insider.

The break up of the glacier put the different puffin populations onto different islands around the Atlantic, where they could evolve independently.

One group settled the north of the Arctic (F. a. naumanni), one group landed on the coastlines of what would become the United Kingdom (F. a. grabae), and the other (F. a. arctica), picked the south of the Arctic.

Fast forward to 1910, more than 100 years after the start of the Industrial Revolution, when humans began releasing greenhouse gases into the air at a never-before-seen rate. The scientists found that this is when some of the northern Arctic colonies moved south, meeting at Bear Island (Bjørnøya) in Norway.

Kersten and his colleagues hypothesize that this happened because climate change made the northern habitat unsuitable for puffins. It could've been a disruption to the food chain from overfishing, a change in water temperature, or any number of human-related effects on the Arctic, that made them want to leave.

Studying these animals may help us understand how our actions may be affecting them, Kersten said. He hopes that his work makes people understand that their actions have effects for the Arctic in general, and for the puffin in specific.

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