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Genetic diversity in caribou linked to past and future climate change

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Climate-driven range fluctuations during the Pleistocene have continuously reshaped species distribution leading to populations of contrasting genetic diversity. Contemporary climate change is similarly influencing species distribution and population structure, with important consequences for patterns of genetic diversity and species’ evolutionary potential1. Yet few studies assess the impacts of global climatic changes on intraspecific genetic variation2,3,4,5. Here, combining analyses of molecular data with time series of predicted species distributions and a model of diffusion through time over the past 21 kyr, we unravel caribou response to past and future climate changes across its entire Holarctic distribution. We found that genetic diversity is geographically structured with two main caribou lineages, one originating from and confined to Northeastern America, the other originating from Euro-Beringia but also currently distributed in western North America. Regions that remained climatically stable over the past 21 kyr maintained a high genetic diversity and are also predicted to experience higher climatic stability under future climate change scenarios. Our interdisciplinary approach, combining genetic data and spatial analyses of climatic stability (applicable to virtually any taxon), represents a significant advance in inferring how climate shapes genetic diversity and impacts genetic structure.

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Figure 1: Population genetic structure of caribou.
Figure 2: Hindcasted distribution of caribou genetic lineages, as defined by SDMs from 21 ka to present.
Figure 4: Models of genetic diversity.
Figure 3: Stability of climatic suitability for caribou.

Change history

  • 09 January 2014

    In the version of this Letter originally published online, the funding information for K. M. was missing from the Acknowledgements section. This has now been corrected in all versions of the Letter.


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We thank J. Adamczewski, T. Baker, A. Beauchemin, K. Beckmen, V. Brodeur, M. Campbell, D. Cooley, S. Crowley, M. Dumond, D. Elliott, D. Ehrich, D. Fortin, M. Gamberg, R.A. Ims, L. Jourdain, M. Kholodova, I. Menyshena, J. Neville, M. Paré, D. Paetkau, K. I. Prokovsky, K. Poole, D. Riach, S. Rivard, G. H. Roffler, D. Russel, M-H. St-Laurent, R. Serrouya, A. Sokolov, V. Sokolov, A. Stien, J. Taillon, J. Williams, N. G. Yoccoz, the Government of Yukon, the Government of Northwest Territories, the Government of Nunavut, the Government of Labrador and Newfoundland, le Gouvernement du Québec, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Hydro-Québec and Manitoba Hydro for providing help to collect samples. Financial support was provided by partners of Caribou Ungava, that is, ArcticNet, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Hydro-Québec, Xstrata Nickel-Mine Raglan, Fédération des Pourvoiries du Québec, CircumArctic Rangifer Monitoring and Assessment Network, Ministère des Resources Naturelles et de la Faune du Québec, Labrador and Newfoundland Wildlife Division, First Air, Makivik Corporation, Fédération Québécoise des Chasseurs et Pêcheurs, Fondation de la Faune du Québec, Institute for Environmental Monitoring and Research, Canada Foundation for Innovation, Petroleum Technology Alliance of Canada, Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and Norwegian Research Council. K.M. acknowledges support from the National Science Foundation IGERT program, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Alaska EPSCoR NSF award #EPS-0701898 and the state of Alaska. We are grateful to C. Hins, S. de Bellefeuille and G. Côté for logistic support and T. Broquet and P. Legagneux for discussions.

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Authors and Affiliations



S.D.C. had the original idea for the study. L.B. was responsible for supervising the genetic analyses. G.Y., L.P., S.D.C. and L.B. designed the research. S.C., C.C., C.D., K.J.H., R.J.I., D.A.J., L.K., N.L., K.M., M.M., K.L.P., K.H.R., T.S, S.G.Þ, B.V.W. and S.D.C. collected the samples. G.Y., L.P. and J.O. carried out the analyses, wrote the manuscript and the Supplementary Information, with input from N.L., A.G., S.D.C. and L.B. All authors discussed the results, implications and edited the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Glenn Yannic, Louis Bernatchez or Steeve D. Côté.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Yannic, G., Pellissier, L., Ortego, J. et al. Genetic diversity in caribou linked to past and future climate change. Nature Clim Change 4, 132–137 (2014).

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