At the end of 2022, scientists from the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IEE RAS) completed the next stage of genetic studies of the Baikal seal within the framework of the Baikal Seal Research Program for 2020-2025. The research is made with support of the Lake Baikal Foundation.
What has been done in 2022?
✔ 20 non-invasive blood samples were analyzed (samples aretaken in 2021 from live individuals based on the Ushkan Islands over summer);
✔ systematized database that includes information
1) on the diversity of the nucleotide sequences of the cytochrome b gene and the allelic composition of 16 microsatellite loci of more than 50 individuals of the Baikal seal,
2) on the nucleotide sequences and allelic composition of two genes (DQB and DRB) of the major histocompatibility complex and nucleotide sequences of the mtDNA control region for more than 30 animals.
What does the gene pool of the Baikal seal tell us?
Based on the available data from two studies (about the first we wrote earlier), we learned that
⮚ the genetic characteristics of seals inhabiting the Ushkan Islands over summer in 2019-2021 differ very little, which means that these individuals belong to same part of the Baikal seal’s population;
⮚ there is no inbreeding detected which could negatively affect the state of the population;
⮚ in terms of genes of the major histocompatibility complex – the number of alleles of the DQB locus (one of the genes associated with the immunity system) is significantly higher (11) than the gray seal (5 alleles) has or than the walrus (5 alleles) has. This is to be investigate further either this is due to the specifics of pathogenic microorganisms in the freshwater of Lake Baikal or due to other factors.
⮚ the Baikal seal has a lower genetic diversity compared to large seals population living in seas;
⮚ the population of the Baikal seal is relatively young and is in the evolutionary stage of growth.
o This may correspond either to the recent inhabitation of the seal into the Baikal (about 300 thousand years ago, from the periglacial West Siberian Lake-Sea), or due to the recovery of the seal population, which settled in the Baikal much earlier, but after catastrophic events during the alternation of glacial and interglacial epochs over the past few hundred thousand years, had practically extinct and is now on the recovery stage.
Currently the population of the Baikal seal is relatively stable and is in the evolutionary stage of growth, however this does not exclude possible threats to the population from human activities. Human activities have a significant effect on the environment in a short run, and Baikal seal doesn’t have time to adapt to such fast changes and form protective mechanisms. This indicates the need for special attention and careful attitude to this species, as well as appropriate protective measures from the State.
Perspectives of scientific research
Carrying out the genetic studies of the biomaterial of Baikal seals settled in other parts of Lake Baikal over summer in order to understand the genetic structure of the population as a whole.
Results of genetic research on Baikal seal will be published in scientific journals.
The full scientific report can be found here (in Russian).
In 2022, genetic studies of the Baikal seal were carried out with the financial support of the Wunderpark private school in the amount of 313,553 rubles.
The project on the genetic study of the Baikal seal was implemented within the framework of the Baikal Seal Research Program for 2020-2025. The program was developed by scientists from the Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences with the support of the Lake Baikal Foundation. Previously, several complex and important studies were carried out within the framework of the Program: virological, toxicological, serological and hormonal.
We continue to monitor the state of the Baikal seal population and take care of its well-being. Thank you for your contribution to the preservation of a unique animal!