Whole-genome Analyses Reveal Past Population Fluctuations and Low Genetic Diversities of the North Pacific Albatrosses

By Eric Lee
Aug 24th 2023
Ranges of North Pacific albatrosses. Red dots indicate sampling sites (Midway Island, Tern Island, and Torishima) of Phoebastria nigripes and/or P. immutabilis.


Throughout the Plio-Pleistocene, climate change has impacted tropical marine ecosystems substantially, with even more severe impacts predicted in the Anthropocene. Although many studies have clarified demographic histories of seabirds in polar regions, the history of keystone seabirds of the tropics is unclear, despite the prominence of albatrosses (Diomedeidae, Procellariiformes) as the largest and most threatened group of oceanic seabirds. To understand the impact of climate change on tropical albatrosses, we investigated the evolutionary and demographic histories of all four North Pacific albatrosses and their prey using whole-genome analyses. We report a striking concordance in demographic histories among the four species, with a notable dip in effective population size at the beginning of the Pleistocene and a population expansion in the Last Glacial Period when sea levels were low, which resulted in increased potential coastal breeding sites. Abundance of the black-footed albatross dropped again during the Last Glacial Maximum, potentially linked to climate-driven loss of breeding sites and concordant genome-derived decreases in its major prey. We find very low genome-wide (π < 0.001) and adaptative genetic diversities across the albatrosses, with genes of the major histocompatibility complex close to monomorphic. We also identify recent selective sweeps at genes associated with hyperosmotic adaptation, longevity, and cognition and memory. Our study has shed light on the evolutionary and demographic histories of the largest tropical oceanic seabirds and provides evidence for their large population fluctuations and alarmingly low genetic diversities.

The journal paper, entitled “Whole-genome Analyses Reveal Past Population Fluctuations and Low Genetic Diversities of the North Pacific Albatrosses. Molecular Biology and Evolution, Volume 40, Issue 7, July 2023, msad155”, can be found at the following link: https://doi.org/10.1093/molbev/msad155