Mitochondrial DNA diversity and evolution of the Pleistocene cave bear complex


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August 2014


Cave bears are among the most well known extinct Pleistocene mammals. Their biogeography and taxonomy, along with the factors that led to their extinction, have been subject to long-standing controversy. Here, we reconstruct the phylogeography as well as the temporal and spatial population dynamics of cave bears across their range using mitochondrial DNA control region sequences from 77 published as well as 65 new cave bear samples, Our analyses reveal a dramatic loss of genetic diversity in cave bear populations after 30,000 years before present and provide evidence for a range decline from east to west towards the onset of the last glacial maximum. Our results also suggest that the three major haplogroups within cave bears, which may correspond to distinct species, were previously more widespread, with relict populations in remote and alpine areas still harbouring haplotypes that have disappeared from most of their previous range. Applying a phylogenetic dating approach, we estimated the age of the oldest of our samples, originating from the Yana River region in north-eastern Siberia, to be around 178,000 years, which confirms a previous estimate of a Middle Pleistocene age based on its stratigraphic position. Our results extend our knowledge about the evolutionary history of cave bears, but they also show that to unravel the complexities of cave bear evolution future ancient DNA studies on this Pleistocene species will need to go beyond short mitochondrial DNA fragments, including full mitochondrial genomes as well as nuclear DNA sequences.


Mitochondrial DNA, DNA Diversity, Diversity, Evolution, Pleistocene Cave Bear Complex

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Quaternary International, Vol. 339-340 (2014-08-07).