What shapes genetic diversity in mammals?

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Global map points to evolution and climate impacting the biodiversity of mammals.

Use this resource to build on prior knowledge with students in year 10 studying biodiversity and the importance of it to understand the impact of climate change on mammals (Biological and Earth and Space Sciences).

Word Count: 351

Credit: Ugurhan / Getty Images

On the heels of the International Day for Biological Diversity, scientists have compiled the first comprehensive map of genetic diversity for terrestrial mammals across the planet.

They found that tropical regions with rich evolutionary histories, such as Amazonia, Northern Andes, central American jungles, sub-Saharan Africa and south-eastern Asia, are also treasure troves of genetic diversity within species.

Further analysis revealed that stable climates over the past 21,000 years likely made an important contribution to their genetic richness.

Intra-species genetic diversity not only makes animals unique, it is critical for adaptation and survival.

The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, therefore accentuates the importance of targeting conservation efforts at these biodiversity hotspots and tackling climate change.

“Understanding the roles of evolutionary history and past climate change on terrestrial mammal diversity is important for future conservation planning,” says co-author Damien Fordham from the University of Adelaide, Australia.

“This is because genetic diversity is a building block of life, providing capacity to adapt to environmental disturbance.”

For the study, led by the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, the researchers collected and georeferenced an enormous amount of genetic data for terrestrial mammals to inform longstanding theories about its global distribution.

Despite these theories, the actual spread of genetic diversity and what drives it has thus far been a mystery, says lead author Spyros Theodoridis.

To generate the global map, the team drew from public databases containing nearly 47,000 mammalian genetic sequences from more than 1500 species and their locations, which they mapped along with their evolutionary relationships.

They ran correlations between inter-, intraspecies and clade diversity and aligned them with estimates of climate stability since the Last Glacial Maximum, modelled along with human-driven change since industrialization.

Results support several converging theories, showing that multiple dimensions of genetic diversity align.

Rapid changes in temperature and rainfall have impacted this, potentially due to species extinctions, sounding a warning for future extreme weather events.

The authors note that tropical regions, home to the world’s richest genetic variation, are also facing the greatest threats from human activities such as deforestation and altered fire regimes, as well as climate change.

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Years: 10


Biological Sciences –  Ecosystems, Genetics

Earth and Space Sciences – The Changing Earth

Additional: Careers, Technology

Concepts (South Australia):

Biological Sciences – Interdependence and Ecosystems, Diversity and Evolution, Form and Function

Earth and Space Sciences – The Earth’s Surface