September 03, 2021
Land formations can often barriers to animal species moving around. One local example would be the black bears on Vancouver Island; they have been separated from the black bears on the mainland for so long they have become genetically distinct, and are their own subspecies. Geographical boundaries like mountain ranges, deep rivers and man-made roads have been used to explain the lack of mixing of genetic information between populations, although it seems that there can be other barriers, previously unrecorded by western science.
New research, which is a collaboration between five First Nation groups from the central coast of British Columbia, the Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the University of Victoria has unveiled an unexpected connection between bears, humans and the land. Their study has shown that the central coast of British Columbia has three distinct genetic groups of grizzly bears. The DNA analysis of these bears has shown that bears in one group or area are more likely to be related to other bears in their group and area than bears from another group or area. Surprisingly these genetic differences could not be explained by geographic barriers; instead they aligned with three Indigenous language families from three distinct geographic areas, these language families are Tsimshian, Northern Wakashan and Salishan Nuxalk.
The bears and First Nations groups in British Columbia have shared their environments and resources for thousands of years. Over this time it makes sense that the two groups were shaped by and adapted to the environment in similar ways. This discovery hints that the overlap between the genetic groups of bears and Indigenous languages indicates the two groups are linked to what pockets of the environment have to offer (shelter, edible plants, salmon etc.) than being limited by an inability to leave the environment due to physical barriers. Because bear cubs learn from their mothers where to find the resources they need, just as humans learn from their relatives, it makes sense that both bears and humans that were raised in one area of the coast would continue to stay in that familial territory, and share that knowledge with their own offspring.
Of note is the fact that this new discovery is at odds with the ways these bears are currently managed. The genetic groups and their familial territories are not recognized by the Provincial government, and in fact, one group’s territory is divided in two and managed in two different ways. In order to ensure these groups of bears are managed in the best possible way, this new genetic information will need to be taken into account. To make sure each group is managed well it will be essential to take into account the genetic ability of each group to adapt to change and the population health of each genetic group. It will be crucial to include First Nations groups in this conservation work, as pairing the traditional ecological knowledge with western science will lead to the best possible outcomes for these groups of bears, as well as their entire ecosystem for years to come.
Source: The Conversation
Learn more: https://theconversation.com/dna-analysis-of-grizzly-bears-aligns-with-indigenous-languages-166718
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