Scientists believe they have discovered a hybrid species of the Atlantic puffin that provides evidence of the first large-scale change of an animal species driven by climate change.
According to research published in the journal Science, the hybrid puffins were discovered on the remote Norwegian island of Bjornoya. The new hybrid likely came from breeding between two subspecies — High Arctic large-bodied puffins and temperate smaller-sized puffins — within the past 100 years which scientists said coincides with the onset of the 20th-century pattern of warming.
However, the hybridization occurred after one subspecies migrated south, not north towards cooler temperatures as you might expect, scientists said.
Researchers discovered the phenomenon by testing whole-genome sequencing of the new hybrid species with 122-year-old specimens and reconstructing its demographic history to create an estimate of the hybridization timing.
The study said hybridized individuals have been observed in several Arctic species before, such as the polar bear and beluga whale, but they claimed this recent research provides “the first genomic evidence for the recent establishment of an entire hybrid population driven by a southward distributional shift.”
“Our findings present a rare observation of a population-scale response to the rapid environmental changes that the Arctic ecosystem has started experiencing within the past century,” the scientists wrote in the study.
The Atlantic puffin is a distinctive seabird with black and white feathers and a colorful bill. Seabirds are a “conspicuous component of Arctic biodiversity” and are “heavily affected by climate change,” researchers said.
The Atlantic puffin is currently designated as “vulnerable” to extinction globally but is listed as “endangered” in Europe.
Some of these population declines have at least in part been attributed to changes in prey availability as a result of climate change and overfishing, the study stated.
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