Polar bears evolved from their brown bear cousins less than 500,000 years ago, and in this time have undergone some genetic changes. One such change was a rapid change in the genes of the polar bear as their diet changed from vegetation to meat.
After analyzing the genomes of the two bear species, researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst discovered that polar bears have fewer copies of genes linked to diet. In fact, polar bears had almost 90% less genes involved with smell than their brown bear cousins. The current theory is that the meat-eating polar bears don’t need to be able to smell as much as the foraging brown bears who eat a broad diet of grasses, bulbs and berries.
This is just one of many genetic changes that have occurred since the two species diverged. The team now hopes to investigate the genome of closely related human populations with different diets to see if they will show similar findings.
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