Ancient ice ages that shaped modern caribou populations may foretell animals’ fate in a warmer world.

When ice sheets marched across North America 20,000 years ago during the Last Glacial Maximum, they devoured liveable areas for caribou and isolated them from their Eurasian relatives for thousands of years.

Now researchers have evidence that such climatic events have sculpted the genetics of North American caribou, which may make the animals unable to adapt to future climate change.

“Although the past is not a guarantee for the future, it makes me pessimistic about the future of the species,” says Glenn Yannic, a population geneticist at Laval University in Quebec City, Canada, and lead author of a study published today in Nature Climate Change1.

Major caribou herds around the globe are in decline. Scientists have blamed this on natural resource development and new roads that encroach on caribou habitat, and on changes in climate that put migrating caribou out of sync with spring plant growth, leaving them hungry. Most studies that forecast climate impacts on species look at ecosystems, individual species or populations, but not genetic factors on a global scale, says Yannic.

Keep reading this story at Nature.

Written by Hannah

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