Original Paper

Polar Biology

, Volume 37, Issue 4, pp 497-506

First online:

Spatial variation and low diversity in the major histocompatibility complex in walrus (Odobenus rosmarus)

  • Sarah A. SonsthagenAffiliated withAlaska Science Center, US Geological Survey Email author 
  • , Krystal FalesAffiliated withEnvironmental Science Department, Alaska Pacific University
  • , Chadwick V. JayAffiliated withAlaska Science Center, US Geological Survey
  • , George K. SageAffiliated withAlaska Science Center, US Geological Survey
  • , Sandra L. TalbotAffiliated withAlaska Science Center, US Geological Survey

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Increased global temperature and associated changes to Arctic habitats will likely result in the northward advance of species, including an influx of pathogens novel to the Arctic. How species respond to these immunological challenges will depend in part on the adaptive potential of their immune response system. We compared levels of genetic diversity at a gene associated with adaptive immune response [Class II major histocompatibility complex (MHC), DQB exon 2] between populations of walrus (Odobenus rosmarus), a sea ice-dependent Arctic species. Walrus was represented by only five MHC DQB alleles, with frequency differences observed between Pacific and Atlantic populations. MHC DQB alleles appear to be under balancing selection, and most (80 %; n = 4/5) of the alleles were observed in walruses from both oceans, suggesting broad scale differences in the frequency of exposure and diversity of pathogens may be influencing levels of heterozygosity at DQB in walruses. Limited genetic diversity at MHC, however, suggests that walrus may have a reduced capacity to respond to novel immunological challenges associated with shifts in ecological communities and environmental stressors predicted for changing climates. This is particularly pertinent for walrus, since reductions in summer sea ice may facilitate both northward expansion of marine species and associated pathogens from more temperate regions, and exchange of marine mammals and associated pathogens through the recently opened Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in the Canadian high Arctic.


Genetic diversity Major histocompatibility complex Odobenus rosmarus Population genetic structure Walrus