Thursday, March 21, 2013

Giant squid have a giant distribution

ResearchBlogging.orgAs many as twenty one species of giant squid have been identified, but most of these were controversial. The general consensus was that there could be one with three subspecies or up to eight distinct species. Now, research shows that there is only one species with no subspecies. This is remarkable given that giant squid are found in nearly every part of the deep sea and their populations are probably large.

Winkelmann et al. (2013) sequenced the mitochondrial genome of 43 giant squid that covered individuals from all of the most widely accepted of the proposed species. They found extremely low genetic diversity and almost no genetic structure between squid from different locations. Only basking sharks, which have long generation times, small population sizes and are recovering from a recently small population size, have lower genetic diversity.

The most likely explanation for the low genetic diversity is that sometime during the last ice-age the population of giant squid declined to a very small size. Small populations are associated with low genetic diversity because random genetic drift affects gene frequency more strongly than it does in large populations. Changes in the numbers of predators or competitors may have caused the decline, but that's just speculation.

The lack of genetic structure is interesting. It suggests that giant squid are incredibly mobile. It is unlikely to be the adults that are moving long distances as other studies show that they stay in relatively contained patches of the deep sea. That argues for long distance dispersal in the eggs and larvae of the giant squid. It is common for marine species to have larvae that disperse long distances, but dispersal distance in the giant squid is extreme.

The study only looked at mitochondrial genes, which are only inherited from the mother. The vast majority of genes are in the nuclear genome and the researchers didn't publish those results in this paper. It will be interesting to see what their results are when they come to analyse them. Sometimes the information gained from looking at the nuclear genes can be at odds with that of the mitochondrial genes because of the differences in the way the genes are inherited.

Winkelmann, I., Campos, P., Strugnell, J., Cherel, Y., Smith, P., Kubodera, T., Allcock, L., Kampmann, M., Schroeder, H., Guerra, A., Norman, M., Finn, J., Ingrao, D., Clarke, M., & Gilbert, M. (2013). Mitochondrial genome diversity and population structure of the giant squid Architeuthis: genetics sheds new light on one of the most enigmatic marine species Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 280 (1759), 20130273-20130273 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2013.0273

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