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The ecological genomics of seals in relation to environmental variation and the evolution of lactation strategies

Dr Simon Goodman (SOB), Dr Mary O'Connell (SOB)

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Project summary

Pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, fur seals and walrus) are keystone marine predators, and sentinels for marine ecosystem health globally. Current advances in genomics technologies are opening up the possibility to identify and dissect the genetics and molecular evolution underlying the adaptions of pinnipeds to the marine environment and the startling variation in ecology and life history present within the family. Understanding these mechanisms not only provides fundamental insights into the process of evolution, but is also important for assessing species vulnerability and responses to potential future environmental change. Some of the unique adaptions of pinnipeds may also be of relevance to human health and therapeutics, such as adaptations in fat metabolism.

This project will provide an opportunity to use comparative genomics to examine two key aspects of pinniped ecology and evolution – the evolution of lactation strategies, and among species variation in disease susceptibility. We will use a variety of genomic approaches including de novo sequencing of seal genomes, and population genetic studies at the genomic level using methods such as dd-RAD. The student can expect to gain experience in cutting edge DNA sequencing and genomics methods, together with developing skills in bioinformatics, comparative genomics, molecular evolution and population genetics analysis. There may be some opportunities to visit collaborators and participate in fieldwork to collect samples.   

Evolution of lactation strategies

Among the 33 extant species of pinnipeds there are a diverse array of adaptations to varying ecological conditions and life histories. One of the most striking aspects of pinnipeds is the variation exhibited in lactation strategies, with weaning times ranging from 4-12 days in hooded and harp seals up to 18 months in some sea lions, and 2 years in the walrus. The ecological drivers of this difference appear to be related to breeding substrates and ecological feeding niche exploited by species. We will use comparative genomics to identify adaptive genetic changes among species in candidate genes which may underpin these adaptations, and map them on to the time line of the pinniped phylogeny to understand how such adaptations may have driven pinniped evolution.     

Adaptation to environmental variability and disease susceptibility

The harbour seal (Phoca vitulina) is the world’s most widely distributed pinniped species, and in Europe has a range extending from Svarlbard to Northern France, and from the Baltic to the west coast of Ireland. Within this distribution the species exploits a wide variety of habitats and experiences a large range of environmental conditions. The species has also experienced 2 mass mortalities from phocine distemper virus (PDV; a member of the morbillivirus family), which killed more than 50% of the European population in 1988 and 2002. Levels of mortality varied substantially among populations, and intriguingly, grey seals (Halichoreus grypus), which are sympatric with harbour seals in much of Europe, were exposed to PDV during the epizootics but did not suffer extensive mortality. The species is therefore is a good model for examining how environmental and ecological conditions influence population structure in marine mammals and for evaluating how genetic variation might contribute to within and among species susceptibility to morbilliviruses. 

Here we will use next generation sequencing techniques, principally dd-RAD, and MiSeq sequencing of immune related candidate genes to examine population structure, demographic history, and associations between PDV mortality and genetic variation. It will build on previous studies using microsatellite markers, and single nucleotide polymorphism genotyping. It will make use of an extensive library of tissue, and genetic material collected for harbour seals from across Europe, including survivors and non-survivors of the PDV epizootics.

Expected outcomes

New knowledge on the molecular adaptions underpinning variation in pinniped lactation strategies; a detailed understanding of the way environmental factors influence population structure in a long-lived, marine mammal; insights into the population demographic history of harbour seals over long and short timescales in relation to past environmental change; potential identification of adaptations and functional genetic variation in harbour seals from across their geographic range and their genomic basis; identification of genetic variation contributing to within and among species variability in susceptibility to PDV; generation of data relevant to the conservation management of seal populations.


The project will use a range of Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) approaches including de novo sequencing on Illumina and other platforms, dd-RAD, MiSeq profiling of immune genes. Data will be analysed with a range of bioinformatics, population genomics and spatial genetics tools.  


Hons degree and/or Masters in a topic relating to Biology, Zoology, Ecology, Genetics, Biodiversity, Evolution, Bioinformatics, Maths & Biology etc. An interest in working at the interface of ecology, biodiversity and population/evolutionary genomics is desirable. Prior experience of bioinformatics is helpful but not essential. However interest in developing skills in bioinformatics and computing is important.


Training will be provided in population and evolutionary genetics/genomics, phylogenetics, bioniformatics, statistical modeling in R, GIS-based spatial analysis and mapping. There may be some opportunities to participate in fieldwork alongside seal ecologists.

Research context and partners

The student will join the Ecology and Evolution group in the School of Biology, and will be integrated with the LIDA and Leeds Omics virtual institutes which encompass a large group of researchers working on genomics and bioinformatics related projects. There may also be opportunities to work with collaborators at other institutions across Europe.

Further reading / bibliography

Baldwin MW, Toda Y, Nakagita T, O'Connell MJ, Klasing KC, Misaka T, Edwards SV, Liberles SD (2014) Evolution of sweet taste perception in hummingbirds by transformation of the ancestral umami receptor. Science 345 929-933.

Brock PM, Goodman SJ, Hall AJ, Cruz M, Acevedo-Whitehouse K (2015) Context-dependent associations between heterozygosity and immune variation in a wild carnivore. Evolutionary ecology and behaviour BMC Evolutionary Biology 15 -.

Foote AD, Liu Y, Thomas GWC, Vinaƙ T, Alföldi J, Deng J, … Gibbs R. A. (2015) Convergent evolution of the genomes of marine mammals. Nature Genetics 47 272–275.

Goodman SJ (1998) Patterns of extensive genetic differentiation and variation among European harbor seals (Phoca vitulina vitulina) revealed using microsatellite DNA polymorphisms. Molecular Biology and Evolution 15 104-118.

Keane M, Semeiks J, Webb AE, Li YI, Quesada V, Craig T, Madsen LB, van Dam S, Brawand D, Marques PI, Michalak P, Kang L, Bhak J, Yim HS, Grishin NV, Nielsen NH, Heide-Jørgensen MP, Oziolor EM, Matson CW, Church GM, Stuart GW, Patton JC, George JC, Suydam R, Larsen K, López-Otín C, O'Connell MJ, Bickham JW, Thomsen B, deMagalhães JP (2015) Insights into the evolution of longevity from the bowhead whale genome. Cell Reports 10 112-122.

Liu S, Lorenzen ED, Fumagalli M, Li B, Harris K, Xiong Z, Zhou L, Korneliussen TS, Somel M, Babbitt C, Wray G, Li J, He W, Wang Z, Fu W, Xiang X, Morgan CC, Doherty A, O'Connell MJ, McInerney JO, Born EW, Dalén L, Dietz R, Orlando L, Sonne C, Zhang G, Nielsen R, Willerslev E, Wang J (2014) Population genomics reveal recent speciation and rapid evolutionary adaptation in polar bears Cell 157 785-794.

McCarthy AJ, Shaw MA, Goodman SJ (2007) Pathogen evolution and disease emergence in carnivores P R SOC B 274 3165-3174.

McCarthy AJ, Shaw MA, Jepson PD, Brasseur SM, Reijnders PJ, Goodman SJ (2011) Variation in European harbour seal immune response genes and susceptibility to phocine distemper virus (PDV). Infect Genet Evol 11 1616-1623.

Morgan CC, Mc Cartney AM, Donoghue MTA, Loughran NB, Spillane C, Teeling EC, O'Connell MJ (2013) Molecular adaptation of telomere associated genes in mammals BMC Evolutionary Biology 13 -.

Schulz TM, Bowen WD (2005) The evolution of lactation strategies in pinnipeds: a phylogenetic analysis. Ecological Monographs 75 159–177. 

Tarver JE, dos Reis M, Mirarab S, Moran RJ, Parker S, O'Reilly JE, King BL, O'Connell MJ, Asher RJ, Warnow T, Peterson KJ, Donoghue PCJ, Pisani D (2016) The Interrelationships of Placental Mammals and the Limits of Phylogenetic Inference Genome Biology and Evolution 8 330-344

Webb AE, Gerek ZN, Morgan CC, Walsh TA, Loscher CE, Edwards SV, O'Connell MJ (2015) Adaptive evolution as a predictor of species-specific innate immune response Molecular Biology and Evolution 32 1717-1729.

Related undergraduate subjects:

  • Biodiversity
  • Bioinformatics
  • Biology
  • Ecology
  • Evolution
  • Genetics
  • Zoology