Mountain caribou's ancient ancestry revealed

January 28, 2009
Mountain Caribou
This is a mountain caribou in the southern Canadian Rockies. Credit: Mark Bradley, Boreal Nature Photos

The declining mountain caribou populations of Canada's southern Rockies are a more distinct breed than scientists previously believed, according to a new study by University of Calgary researchers that is shedding light on the ancient ancestry of the mountain-dwelling herbivores.

In a study published in the current issue of the journal Molecular Ecology, Faculty of Environmental Design PhD candidate Byron Weckworth and his research group describe how Alberta and British Columbia's mountain caribou populations are remnants of blending between the two major subspecies of caribou that likely occurred during the end of the last ice age about 10,000 years ago.

"These are special animals because they are not woodland caribou or tundra caribou, but a very interesting combination of the two," Weckworth said. "Mountain caribou are an important part of the genetic diversity of the entire species and maintaining that diversity will be critical as caribou face the impacts of continued human development and climate change into the future."

An analysis of mountain caribou DNA and 10 years of tracking the migratory patterns of populations across the southern Rockies in the Yellowstone-to-Yukon corridor, including western Alberta and eastern BC, showed that mountain caribou are hybrids of migratory tundra caribou and sedentary woodland caribou. The researchers believe the blending likely occurred during glacial retreat at the end of the last ice age when both subspecies of caribou could have expanded into the newly ice-free corridor along the eastern slopes of the Rockies.

"Their DNA is basically part woodland and part tundra, which is fascinating because this mixture is apparent given the genetic expression of migratory behavior." Weckworth said. "Among these mountain caribou we see a wide range of behavior from some individuals that don't migrate at all to some that move up to 100 kilometres between the foothills and the mountains every year. Populations contain both migratory and non-migratory individuals, and it is exactly this type of variation that provides them with the flexibility to adapt to a landscape that is changing due to climatic conditions and human activities."

Their findings could lead to a change in how the endangered populations are managed due to their unique genetics and behavior. For example, the Little Smoky population in Alberta has been declining for over a decade because of human-caused habitat changes that are believed to be altering predator-prey relationships. Genetic analyses confirm that the Little Smoky population is different from other caribou populations in west-central Alberta, and is likely the last remnant of distinct boreal caribou along the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies.

The study, which was supported by Weyerhaeuser, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Shell Canada, Parks Canada, and Alberta Department of Sustainable Resource Development, concludes that new conservation plans may be required to reflect the mountain caribou's unique nature.

"It is impossible to predict all the impacts of something like climate change, but we know that migration has been an important adaptive response in the past, and so it is best to preserve this unique genetic and behavioral variability to better enable caribou to adapt to an uncertain future," Weckworth said.

The article "Survival in the Rockies of an endangered hybrid swarm from diverged caribou (Rangifer tarandus) lineages" by Allan D. McDevitt, Stefano Mariani, Mark Hebblewhite, Nicholas J. Decesare, Luigi Morgantini, Dale Seip, Byron V. Weckworth and Marco Musiani is available online at: .

Source: University of Calgary

Explore further: Aspen's 'dandelion' habits challenge mountain evergreens

Related Stories

Aspen's 'dandelion' habits challenge mountain evergreens

February 22, 2010

( -- The face of high-elevation evergreen forests in Western Canada could be drastically altered as a combination of climate change, human and natural disturbances is making spruce and pine forests in the Rocky ...

Ice beetles impacted by climate change

December 2, 2008

In the summer of 1968, Dave Kavanaugh set off on a hike that would change the course of his life. As a second-year medical student at the University of Colorado, he had joined a climbing club with a few members of the biophysics ...

Dramatic biological responses to global warming in the Arctic

September 10, 2009

"The Arctic as we know it may soon be a thing of the past," says Eric Post, associate professor of biology at Penn State University. Post leads a large, international team that carried out ecosystem-wide studies of the biological ...

Recommended for you

'Material universe' yields surprising new particle

November 25, 2015

An international team of researchers has predicted the existence of a new type of particle called the type-II Weyl fermion in metallic materials. When subjected to a magnetic field, the materials containing the particle act ...

CERN collides heavy nuclei at new record high energy

November 25, 2015

The world's most powerful accelerator, the 27 km long Large Hadron Collider (LHC) operating at CERN in Geneva established collisions between lead nuclei, this morning, at the highest energies ever. The LHC has been colliding ...

Study suggests fish can experience 'emotional fever'

November 25, 2015

(—A small team of researchers from the U.K. and Spain has found via lab study that at least one type of fish is capable of experiencing 'emotional fever,' which suggests it may qualify as a sentient being. In their ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jan 28, 2009
so are they endangered, or can we go get some fast food with a bow or rifle :D

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.