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
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
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. …