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Animal DNA holds memories of the past

If an Antarctic ice sheet had collapsed thousands of years ago during a period when global temperatures were similar today, it could offer us insight into how global warming impacts our ice sheets now. However, this is impossible. Or is it? It turns out that analyzing octopus DNA has given us insight into a haunting event of the past - the complete collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet.

DNA samples of a certain species of octopus called Turquet’s octopus revealed that populations of octopuses from opposite sides of the West Antarctic ice sheet somehow mingled 125,000 years ago, a period when temperatures were close to today’s conditions.The most likely explanation? The complete collapse of the ice sheet separating them.

This research has serious implications for the future of our ice sheets, and it has been made public even before peer review has been completed. According to one of the leaders of the research, geneticist Dr. Sally Lau, this was done because of the urgency of the situation.

This isn’t the only time DNA has given us significant insight into climate change’s drastic consequences in the Arctic. An international research study that analyzed frozen DNA of ancient plants and animals such as the wooly mammoth suggested that climate change was primarily responsible for their extinction.

The effects of climate change on plant and animal species during these periods gives us a clear picture of what’s likely to come. “That was a period of rapid warming, multiple extinctions and the first migrations of humans across the Arctic,” says co-author of the study David Beilman, when asked what Hawaii was like during the ice age.

It’s clear that the Antarctic and Arctic regions, just like many other regions of the world, are about to feel the drastic effects of climate change more than ever before if no action is taken. Large animal extinction and melting ice sheets are likely just the tip of the iceberg.

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