ABRUZZO, ITALY, 2011

Marsican bear

D'Amicis

© Bruno D’Amicis / Nature Picture Library

 

In the mountains of the Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park lives the last surviving population of Marsican brown bears, the only subspecies of bear present in the Italian peninsula. A handful of bears, currently around fifty, have been fighting the risk of extinction for decades.
Initially interconnected, early brown bear populations have been declining sharply since the Neolithic period. While the entire Apennine range was once habitable, the development of human settlements in recent centuries has drastically reduced the number, range and possibility of movement of these plantigrades. As a result, they have bred with descendants of the same original population and, in fact, all Marsican bears appear to share the same mitochondrial DNA, a factor that, combined with the low genetic variability, would spell doom for any species. And yet, recent studies show that a series of particular coincidences has allowed the Marsican bear to survive to the present day.
Despite the loss of diversity caused by endogamy, its genome shows non-random peaks of variability in genes associated with the sense of smell and immune system. Combined with the selection of traits normally considered deleterious, such as low aggressiveness, this seems to have allowed the population to maintain a fairly healthy state while coexisting better with humans. Finally, the low human population density in the area has meant that the only object of attack by bears has been cellars in the Park’s villages, once packed with meat and maturing cheeses. But we must not lower our guard. Although there are slight signs of recovery, human activities continue to pose a major threat to this mammal.
Now symbol of the Park that covers most of its remaining distribution area, the Marsican bear provides excellent food for thought for improving coexistence between man and the surrounding environment.

Riccardo Agostinelli