Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Chicago Zoo's Mouse Study Means Bad News for Endangered Species

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Chicago Zoo's Mouse Study Means Bad News for Endangered Species

Article excerpt

The Brookfield Zoo's Mouse House has some bad news for endangered species: Experiments in inbreeding of wild mice indicate that the ill effects of inbreeding are far more severe than previously thought.

In the Mouse House experiment, a batch of white-footed mice recruited from the woodlands surrounding the zoo were bred with each other for four successive generations. The inbred mice were then released into the wild and tracked to see how long they survived.

The white-footed mouse, Peromyscus leucopus, is a very distant cousin of the common house mouse.

The inbred mice died faster and more often - with a 50 percent higher mortality rate - than non-inbred mice, the study found.

That could be an ominous finding for attempts save endangered species by capturing a few of the remaining survivors and trying to breed them back from extinction.

"There are two very important messages here," said Robert Lacy, a geneticist who conducted the mouse study. "In the future, we should never wait until a species gets down to the last few dozen before we take heroic measures to save them. We should be doing that when there are still thousands. And when we breed (endangered species) in captivity, we should be taking every precaution we can to avoid inbreeding."

The study was based on work done primarily by a biology honors student under Lacy's direction, Julie Jimenez, then an undergraduate at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

In humans, inbreeding is called incest, and there are strong and ancient taboos - cultural and religious - against it, for excellent genetic reasons, Lacy noted.

Children born from father-daughter or sister-brother matings, for example, come from a less diverse gene pool than children from unrelated parents. Because of more easily paired negative, recessive genes, inbred children have far higher rates of birth defects, lower intelligence, fertility and immunity to disease.

In 1987, scientists captured the last 27 surviving California condors in an attempt to increase their numbers dramatically before placing them back in the wild. Similarly, in 1986 in Wyoming, scientists took the last 19 surviving black-footed ferrets from the wild before they became extinct, hoping to breed enough to restore them to the wilderness. …

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