Wildlife Biologists Give Genetics Increasing Role in Species Conservation

By Julie Buckles, | The Christian Science Monitor, September 14, 2000 | Go to article overview

Wildlife Biologists Give Genetics Increasing Role in Species Conservation


Julie Buckles,, The Christian Science Monitor


Genetic fingerprints, they're not just for people anymore. They are creeping into the wild, helping biologists understand and conserve rare and endangered species.

As in humans, a little reveals a lot in this brave new genetic age. One hair follicle, feather, drop of blood, or fleck of skin contains enough DNA to identify individual animals, their species, sex, maternity, and paternity.

Essentially tagging animals without ever touching them, wildlife biologists are identifying populations at risk, their habits, habitat, social structures, and breeding patterns.

Even law enforcement is now using it to solve wildlife-related crime cases like poaching, and the illegal sale and transport of protected species. The National Fish and Wildlife Forensic Laboratory, the only full-service wildlife crime lab in the world, uses DNA analysis on 25 percent of the 1,000 cases it sees each year, says lab director Ken Goddard.

The field of conservation genetics is so new as to only be given a name in the past decade. No one was thinking about genetics and wildlife 11 years ago, says George Amato, director of the Conservation Genetics Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York. "Now we can't keep up with requests for research."

In just the past few years, Mr. Amato's group has discovered two new species of deer in Southeast Asia and rediscovered one not seen for 60 years. They've assessed the genetic health of right whales - one of the most critically endangered marine mammals in the world - by comparing the DNA of century-old museum specimens with that of living whales.

And they've gained insight into the mysterious eastern lowland gorilla, a shy mammal that has historically eluded field biologists. Using DNA analysis, researchers collected naturally shed gorilla hairs in Kehuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Lab results identified 65 individuals and confirmed that the eastern lowland gorilla is a distinct subspecies, different from the western lowland gorilla and the mountain gorilla. Applying the data, researchers then mapped the eastern lowland gorilla's genetic distribution, which showed that the park's narrow middle, where people lived, created a gate of sorts, stopping the gorillas from moving from one side to the other. Researchers recommended restricting human activity and/or expanding the park's middle to open the flow.

"This is the biggest revolution in wildlife management since radio telemetry, especially for these secretive forest creatures that are so difficult to monitor," says Katherine Kendall, a research ecologist at US Geological Survey, who is heading the Greater Glacier Area Bear DNA Project.

Not to mention those creatures that weigh 300 to 800 pounds and are sometimes dangerous.

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