Canberra, Oct 14 : A new research has determined that DNA in the bones of Adelie penguins that survived the last ice age are helping to shed light on how other animals will cope with climate change.
Adelie penguins have been surviving extreme climate change in Antarctica for hundreds and thousands of years.
According to a report by ABC News, evolutionary biologist Professor David Lambert of Griffith University in Brisbane and colleagues carried out the analysis of Adelie penguin DNA dating back to 37,000 years.
"Adelie penguins are a wonderful model to study the problem of climate change," said Lambert. "They have lived through temperature fluctuations much higher than those in equatorial regions," he added.
Lambert said that Adelie penguins have survived 10 degree Celsius of warming since the last glacial maximum 18,000 years ago.
He expects them to have been around 120,000 years earlier than that, during the peak of the ice age before last.
Adelie penguins are one of very few species that have survived in large numbers over such a long time, according to Lambert.
Lambert said that if species are able to move geographically, there is evidence that they can combat climate change by staying within their preferred temperature range.
"The problem for Adelie penguins is they've got nowhere to go," said Lambert. "They're in the coldest place they can be," he added.
He said the fact that Adelie penguins have survived extreme changes in temperature may mean that some species are able to respond to climate change even when they can't move geographically.
Lambert and colleagues' research on the rate of evolution of Adelie penguins in Antarctica may help shed some light on why this is the case.
The team analyzed the number of mutations in the mitochondrial DNA of mothers and their chicks and compared this with DNA from ancestral penguins, taken from 37,000-year-old bones preserved in the extreme cold and dry conditions of Antarctica.
They found the rate of mutations between generations was the same as the rate over 37,000 years.
This is contrary to recent suggestions that evolution is faster over short time frames, but slows down over long time frames, when the loss of genetic diversity due to speciation is taken into account.
Importantly, the rate of evolution of Adelie penguins found by Lambert and the team confirm earlier findings that the penguins evolve faster than previously thought, which may be one explanation for their ability to survive extreme variations in climate.
Lambert said that natural selection may also have played a role in Adelie penguins' survival in Antarctica and he hopes to also look at the mutation in genes that are subject to natural selection.