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Ancient genes vital for dolphin survival

Genes as old as 2.3 million-years-old helped the bottlenose dolphin adapt to new habitats through changes in behaviour and may be the secret to their survival and range expansion, according to the new research led by the University of St Andrews, with participation from Bangor University.

Understanding the processes that allow species to extend their ranges and adapt to new environmental conditions in a newly available habitat such as new coastal habitats at the end of the last Ice Age, is an essential question in biology.

This new international study addressed this in the highly social and long-lived common bottlenose dolphin, a species which has repeatedly adapted from being an offshore (pelagic) species to life in coastal waters.

Key to their ability to adapt to changing environments over generations are genes associated with cognitive abilities and feeding behaviours, indicating that bottlenose dolphin sociality has helped them to adapt and survive.

Dr Andrew Foote, co-author of the paper published in Science Advances, co-supervised the research project while at the University’s School of Natural Resources. Now at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, he explained:

 "The saying "old wine in new bottles", refers to old ideas being repackaged as new ones. Our results suggest ancient genes repackaged in new generations of bottlenose dolphins have helped them repeatedly adapt to life in coastal waters around the world."

Lead author, Dr Marie Louis at the University of St Andrews said:

“Old genes were important contributors to bottlenose dolphins’ ability to repeatedly adapt to coastal waters across the world.

“Furthermore, several of the genes involved in this repeated adaptation to coastal habitats have roles in cognitive abilities and feeding, suggesting a role of social behaviour in facilitating the ability of bottlenose dolphins to adapt to novel conditions.

“Conserving old genes may thus be critical for any species to cope with current rapid global change.”

The research team re-sequenced and analysed the whole genomes of 57 coastal and pelagic dolphins from three regions: the eastern North Atlantic, western North Atlantic and eastern North Pacific to figure out how the bottlenose dolphin has been able to repeatedly adapt to coastal waters.

They found that the pelagic and coastal ecotypes from the Atlantic and the Pacific have evolved independently, while those in the Atlantic are partially related.

Scanning the genomes for patterns of genetic diversity and differentiation, the team found that some regions of the genome were under the influence of selection in all three geographically distant coastal populations and were thus likely involved in adaptation to coastal habitats.

Even more striking was the fact that these genomic regions under parallel adaptation and present at low to intermediate frequency in the pelagic populations were very old.

This suggests that these old genes have been repeatedly repackaged during the formation of coastal populations, when new coastal habitats opened up, for example at the end of the last ice age. 

Publication date: 1 November 2021

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