Bowhead whale genetics

Population Genetic Analysis of Bowhead Whales

Prior to, During, and Post Industrial Whaling in the North Atlantic

by Mikkel Sinding

I am doing a master thesis (Speciale) at the department of GeoGenetics University of Copenhagen on Population Genetic Analysis of Bowhead Whales Prior to, During, and Post Industrial Whaling in the North Atlantic

Bowhead whales were historically one of the most heavily hunted cetacean species in the Northern Atlantic. In the Greenland area, they were once hunted by the local people, in particular the Saqqaq, Dorset and Thule people, but during the last 4 centuries this was replaced by heavier commercial hunting. The effect of this increased hunting pressure on the bowhead whale populations has yet to be studied, but represents a perfect case of where ancient DNA coupled to modern population genetic studies can help fill in our understanding.

To achieve this, access to appropriate ancient genetic material is required. In this regards, bowhead whales are of particular interest as their baleen, that may contain DNA, is a common artifact in both historical and archaeological collections from Greenland. I have therefore an agreement with the Nationalemuseum in Copenhagen, to collect and study bowhead whale baleen over the past 6 millennia. Specifically I PCR target the mitochondrial genome hypervariable region in this material. Analysis of the subsequently generated sequences will enable me to reconstruct the population demographic of the species prior to, during and since industrial whaling, plus investigate associated changes in genetic diversity. Ultimately the analyses will also enable detailed characterization of baleen as a potential genetic material.

I am now in Qeqertarsuaq to assist in the bowhead whale project and to get experience out of the lab, and hopefully help to collect biopsies for additional modern sequences in my own work.

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