Ice-Age Climate Adaptations Trap the Alpine Marmot in a State of Low Genetic Diversity
Journal article, 2019

© 2019 The Author(s) Some species responded successfully to prehistoric changes in climate [1, 2], while others failed to adapt and became extinct [3]. The factors that determine successful climate adaptation remain poorly understood. We constructed a reference genome and studied physiological adaptations in the Alpine marmot (Marmota marmota), a large ground-dwelling squirrel exquisitely adapted to the “ice-age” climate of the Pleistocene steppe [4, 5]. Since the disappearance of this habitat, the rodent persists in large numbers in the high-altitude Alpine meadow [6, 7]. Genome and metabolome showed evidence of adaptation consistent with cold climate, affecting white adipose tissue. Conversely, however, we found that the Alpine marmot has levels of genetic variation that are among the lowest for mammals, such that deleterious mutations are less effectively purged. Our data rule out typical explanations for low diversity, such as high levels of consanguineous mating, or a very recent bottleneck. Instead, ancient demographic reconstruction revealed that genetic diversity was lost during the climate shifts of the Pleistocene and has not recovered, despite the current high population size. We attribute this slow recovery to the marmot's adaptive life history. The case of the Alpine marmot reveals a complicated relationship between climatic changes, genetic diversity, and conservation status. It shows that species of extremely low genetic diversity can be very successful and persist over thousands of years, but also that climate-adapted life history can trap a species in a persistent state of low genetic diversity. Despite being highly abundant and well adapted, Gossmann et al. report that the Alpine marmot is among the least genetically diverse animal species. The low diversity is found to be the consequence of consecutive, climate-related events, including long-term extreme niche adaptation, that also greatly retarded the recovery of its genetic diversity.

climate adaptation


low genetic diversity


reference genome


large population size

Alpine marmot

ice age



Toni I. Gossmann

Bielefeld University

University of Sheffield

Achchuthan Shanmugasundram

The Francis Crick Institute

University of Liverpool

Stefan Börno

Max Planck Society

Ludovic Duvaux

University of Bordeaux

University of Angers

Christophe Lemaire

University of Angers

Heiner Kuhl

Max Planck Society

Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries

Sven Klages

Max Planck Society

Lee D. Roberts

University of Cambridge

University of Leeds

Sophia Schade

Max Planck Society

Johanna M. Gostner

Medical University of Innsbruck

Falk Hildebrand

Institute of Food Research

European Molecular Biology Laboratory

Earlham Institute

Jakob Vowinckel

University of Cambridge

Coraline Bichet

Institut für Vogelforschung Vogelwarte Helgoland (IfV)

Michael Mülleder

Charité University Medicine Berlin

University of Cambridge

Enrica Calvani

University of Cambridge

The Francis Crick Institute

Aleksej Zelezniak

Royal Institute of Technology (KTH)

The Francis Crick Institute

Chalmers, Biology and Biological Engineering, Systems and Synthetic Biology

Julian L. Griffin

University of Cambridge

Peer Bork

The Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine

Molecular Medicine Partnership Unit

European Molecular Biology Laboratory

Dominique Allaine

Université de Lyon

Aurélie Cohas

Université de Lyon

John J. Welch

University of Cambridge

Bernd Timmermann

Max Planck Society

M. Ralser

Charité University Medicine Berlin

University of Cambridge

The Francis Crick Institute

Current Biology

0960-9822 (ISSN)

Vol. 29 10 1712-1720.e7

Subject Categories

Evolutionary Biology


Climate Research



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