NEW YORK, March 10, 2015 —The gray whale—a species driven to extinction in the North Atlantic—could find its way back into its former habitat through once-obstructed waterways that are now opening in a warming world, according to ancient DNA research conducted by scientists at the Graduate Center, City University of New York; Potsdam University; Wildlife Conservation Society; and partner institutions.
Gray whales are famous for their annual migrations along the Pacific coast of North America. Until a few hundred years ago, gray whales also existed in the Atlantic Ocean. That population went extinct for unknown reasons. However, in a new paper—"Climate Impacts on Transocean Dispersal and Habitat in Gray Whales from the Pleistocene to 2100," published in Molecular Ecology—a team of scientists uses ancient DNA sequences to show that gray whales migrated between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans during warmer periods of the late Pleistocene and Holocene, when the Bering Strait was open and sea-ice was light. Climate change is now melting Arctic sea ice, and as a result, whales may move to the Atlantic again. Two recent sightings of gray whales in the Atlantic suggest this movement may already be starting.
This study represents a rare case in which scientists can observe how climate change has impacted a species' movements in the past, with implications for the future. Gray whales have long been important icons of marine conservation.
"As Arctic sea-ice melts, our study suggests gray whales are going to become even more important symbols of the changing oceans," said Elizabeth Alter, lead author of the study and professor of biology at the Graduate Center and York College, City University of New York. "Today, gray whales are found only in the Pacific. But our research indicates that they may move back into the Atlantic, where they could have transformative impacts on existing ecosystems."
The authors also performed predictive habitat modeling, showing that a gray whale habitat will become increasingly available in the Atlantic in the foreseeable future.
"Our results suggest that with ongoing climate warming, the gray whale may sooner or later be back in the Atlantic," said Michael Hofreiter, study co-author and an evolutionary biologist at Potsdam University.
Ultimately, recent sightings of the gray whales in the Atlantic may be a harbinger of further change to come, the findings suggest.
"Gray whales in the eastern North Pacific have become a conservation success story," said Dr. Howard Rosenbaum, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Ocean Giants Program and co-author of the study. "Unfortunately, the complete disappearance of the Atlantic gray whale is the only instance of a whale extinction from an ocean basin during the historical era. Time will tell if the recent few gray whale occurrences in the Atlantic become something more than the sighting of a lifetime."
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About the Graduate Center
The Graduate Center (GC) is the principal doctorate-granting institution of the City University of New York. Offering more than 30 doctoral degrees and fostering globally significant research in a wide variety of centers and institutes, the GC affords rigorous academic training in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. It is home to a core faculty of approximately 140 teachers and mentors, along with 1700 faculty from across the CUNY colleges and New York City's cultural, academic, and scientific institutions. Through its public programs, the Graduate Center enhances the City's intellectual and cultural life.
About the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)
MISSION: WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature. VISION: WCS envisions a world where wildlife thrives in healthy lands and seas, valued by societies that embrace and benefit from the diversity and integrity of life on earth. To achieve our mission, WCS, based at the Bronx Zoo, harnesses the power of its Global Conservation Program in more than 60 nations and in all the world's oceans and its five wildlife parks in New York City, visited by 4 million people annually. WCS combines its expertise in the field, zoos, and aquarium to achieve its conservation mission.