Apr 19, 2019 | Updated: 09:46 AM EDT

Skunk Genetics Have Been Impacted By Climate Change, Not Geology

May 07, 2017 03:10 AM EDT

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Skunk genetics have been influenced by climate change.
(Photo : Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

As climate change has influenced evolution for millions of years, they offer clues to scientists regarding how animals can adapt to it too. Scientists study the effects of Ice Age climate change on the evolution of tiny, hand-standing skunks.

Scientists conducted analysis on western spotted skunk's DNA and understood that Ice Age climate change is playing a vital role in their evolution, according to lead author Adam Ferguson, Collections Manager of Mammals at The Field Museum in Chicago and affiliate of Texas Tech University. He noted that over the past million years, there have been changing climates that have isolated groups of spotted skunks in areas with suitable abiotic conditions. This has given rise to genetic sub-divisions that can still be seen today.

As anyone who is familiar with western spotted skunks knows, these two-pound creatures are small, with coats that look like mazes of black and white swirls. They can spray and do hand-stands even as their hind legs and fluffy tails go up in the air. They can release smelly chemicals that can keep predators away, according to Phys.org.

The skunks are found in Western US and Mexico in a wide range of climates. However, they can survive anywhere - right from Oregon's temperate rainforests to the hottest desert in Mexico, the Sonoran.

Three genetic sub-groups, or clades, of western spotted skunks, can evolve whenever one species goes to another mountain range. There are groups on both sides of the mountain that might split genetically. Still, the skunks are divided into three clades not only due to geographical barriers. Populations that have been separated by mountains seem to be genetically identical, yet varied due to Ice Age climate change.

"Western spotted skunks have been around for a million years, since the Pleistocene Ice Age," explains Ferguson. "During the Ice Age, western North America was mostly covered by glaciers, and there were patches of suitable climates for the skunks separated by patches of unsuitable climates. These regions are called climate refugia. When we analyzed the DNA of spotted skunks living today, we found three groups that correspond to three different climate refugia."

Hence, for spotted skunk evolution, it is climate change that seems to indicate a more important factor, as compared to geographical barriers, according to Ferguson. The results were published in a paper in Ecology and Evolution

Ferguson said that smaller carnivores such as skunks have not really been examined to find out what happens with climate change. While small mammals like rodents as well as bigger carnivores such as wolves respond to climates, the new study shows some similarities and bridges gaps between them.

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