The Importance of Conservation Genetics

When I told my neurologist that I was interested in conservation genetics he told me, rather unenthusiastically, that it sounded like I just threw some words in a blender and pulled those two out. This is just one example, but a lot of people don’t understand how genetics and conservation go together.

Genetics is a rapidly evolving field providing insight into speciation and differences between individuals and populations. It can be applied to any living system and to me it is the perfect blend of biology, chemistry, and math.

My brother will attest to this, I am a total granola crunching hippy at heart. I love the environment and anything conservation related and I think most of us can agree that protecting our environment and conserving biodiversity is extremely important.

But how can genetics help conservation efforts? I think the real world contributions that this relatively new field of study has already made are the best way to illustrate it’s importance.

Me very excited to be holding an 8 week old cheetah at the Garden Route Game Lodge in South Africa.

My second favourite animal, cheetahs*, are very inbred. The 10,000 that are left share 99% of their DNA between individuals! The low genetic diversity makes the cheetah population very susceptible to disease and extinction.  By using genetic analysis to look at how closely related individual cheetahs are, cheetah breeding projects are able to breed selectively as an attempt to reintroduce genetic variation back into the population.

A girl feeding a Sulcata tortoise at CrocTalk Conservation and Rescue

Michael Russello, my UBCO ecology professor, really got me interested in conservation genetics. I was working at CrocTalk with Sulcata tortoises and taking his ecology course when he told us about some of his research. One Galapagos tortoise, Lonesome George, was thought to be the last of his species from Pinta island as of 1972. This prompted a study to look at tortoises on other Galapagos islands for relatedness to George. Because tortoises were shuffled around quite a bit by ships there are quite a few individuals sharing some of Lonesome George’s DNA. Although Lonesome George died in 2012 without reproducing, selective breeding could be used to reintroduce tortoises to Pinta island and potentially restore the ecology of the island to it’s previous state. Lonesome George lives on via bits and pieces of his genes in other individuals.

Humpback whale tail. Photo by Steph Sardelis

Terrestrial and marine, the Palumbi lab at Stanford University has quite a few interesting genetics projects. One of these is estimating past population sizes of whales. This is important for management and conservation of current populations. They are using current levels of genetic diversity along with known mutation rates to look at what the whale population was like before whaling. So far their numbers have increased previous estimates by up to ten times! These numbers could completely change our thoughts and approaches to whale related conservation and management.

Elephants behind the volunteer camp at the Garden Route Game Lodge in South Africa.

This is the second of my examples which relates to charismatic African animals. You can see where my mind is… In a little over 30 years the elephant population in Africa has declined from 1 million to 470,000 and poaching is very quickly approaching it’s highest ever rate. Samuel Wasser at The University of Washington works with ivory to determine where it is from. By comparing the tusk DNA with that of DNA found in elephants Africa it is possible to determine poaching hot spots and increase conservation efforts in these areas. I love this project particularly because it is non invasive. They are using feces for the population DNA samples instead of using invasive genetic sampling techniques.

These are only a few examples of how genetics are used in conservation efforts. This field is relatively now and growing rapidly as technology improves. It shows a lot of promise in assisting global conservation efforts.

Happy Thanksgiving!

*My first favourite animal is a platypus, in case you were wondering.



2 thoughts on “The Importance of Conservation Genetics

  1. Christina,
    I really like your blog on “The Importance of Conservation Genetics”. Conservation genetics is a really exciting new field of science and it is encouraging to see someone who has found their specialty and is so passionate! However, your blog brings to mind a question I have heard other people discuss before. There seems to be a debate in conservation about whether the best approach ‘for the planet’ is to help only a few key species that are still at relatively viable numbers (thus forsaking the rest) or whether it would be better to invest in helping those species already endangered and on the brink of extinction (through approaches like conservation genetics). While I personally do not share one or the other point of views, I was simply wondering what your response would be to justify whether or not it is ‘worth’ it to focus on helping species where there is only one individual left alive (lonesome George) or focus on another species that has a more realistic chance.
    Cheers, Maia

    • You bring up an interesting point! The examples that I gave were of large charismatic animals, but there are also broader approaches taken by conservation genetics. ie. Phillipe Henry has been applying conservation genetics to eradication of invasive plant species.

      In the case of individuals like Lonesome George I definitely see your point. I’m not an expert on this case, but Pinta island has probably changed so much since 1972 that it may not be worth an attempt to recreate and reintroduce the species.

      Overall I think that this is more of a general conservation issue and there has to be a balance. We need to assess the ecological and economical value of a species before a decision can be made regarding the amount of resources and effort invested in it’s conservation.
      Phillipe’s work:

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