Background The population size of Atlantic walruses (Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus) is depleted relative to historical abundance levels. In Svalbard, centuries of over-exploitation brought the walrus herds to the verge of extinction, and such bottlenecks may have caused loss of genetic variation. To address this for Svalbard walruses, mitochondrial haplotypes of historical walruses from two major haul-out sites, Bjørnøya and Håøya, within the Archipelago were explored using bone samples from animals killed during the peak period of harvesting. Results Using ancient DNA methodologies, the mitochondrial NADH dehydrogenase 1 (ND1) gene, the cytochrome c oxidase 1 (COI) gene, and the control region (CR) were targeted for 15 specimens from Bjørnøya (of which five were entirely negative) and 9 specimens from Håøya (of which one was entirely negative). While ND1 and COI sequences were obtained for only a few samples, the CR delivered the most comprehensive data set, and the average genetic distance among historic Svalbard samples was 0.0028 (SD = 0.0023). Conclusions The CR sequences from the historical samples appear to be nested among contemporary Atlantic walruses, and no distinct mitochondrial haplogroups were identified in the historical samples that may have been lost during the periods of extensive hunting. However, given the low sample size and poor phylogenetic resolution it cannot be excluded that such haplogroups existed.
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