Narwhals are thriving with very little genetic diversity, study finds

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The genetic diversity of narwhals is strikingly low compared to other Arctic creatures and many less successful species, scientists have revealed.

Researchers who sequenced their genome are surprised the trait appears to be having for no impact on their survival, as they continue to thrive. 

It's contrary to what is usually the case in biology, where low genetic variation often causes a species to struggle in numbers.

The narwhal's case shows persistently low diversity and throws into question the popular notion that a narrow gene pool is associated with negative consequences.

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The genetic diversity of narwhals (pictured) are strikingly low compared to other Arctic creatures and many less successful species

The genetic diversity of narwhals (pictured) are strikingly low compared to other Arctic creatures and many less successful species

Scientists have ruled out inbreeding as a cause of the Narwhal's low genetic diversity, or a sudden event that could have reduced their genetic population to a small representation.  

Whatever the cause, the trait has likely persisted for tens or hundreds of thousands of years.  

While researchers still don't have the answers, they have suggested it could have something to do with the onset of the last Ice Age, roughly 115,000 years ago. 

The event may have created an habitat so ideal for the significantly smaller population narwhals that it allowed them to rapidly multiply as well as protect them.  

'Narwhals' long-term low genetic diversity may have allowed them to evolve different mechanisms to cope with their limited genome,' said Dr Michael Vincent Westbury, a postdoctoral researcher at the Natural History Museum of Denmark.

Scientists who have sequenced their genome says the trait is surprisingly not impacting on their survival, as they continue to thrive

Scientists who have sequenced their genome says the trait is surprisingly not impacting on their survival, as they continue to thrive

A lack of genetic diversity in any species is linked to low survivability as it makes species more vulnerable to disease and environmental pressures. 

Geneticists studying Narwhal mitochondrial DNA and micro-satellites observed the trait across a number of narwhal populations which are mostly in the Arctic where they are one of three whale species.

They are now considered globally 'abundant', recently estimated at roughly 170,000 in numbers and removing them from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List status for 'Near Threatened' to 'Least Concern' in 2018. 

This is surprising compared to other Arctic dwelling marine mammal which has significantly greater genetic diversity but only numbers around 1,800 in total. 

The trait is contrary to what is usually the case in biology - that low genetic variation often cause a species to struggle in numbers. Map of the narwhal distribution range based on International Union for Conservation of Nature distribution data comparing genome-wide diversity of 16 Mammalian Species

The trait is contrary to what is usually the case in biology - that low genetic variation often cause a species to struggle in numbers. Map of the narwhal distribution range based on International Union for Conservation

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