How genetics can help us conserve threatened wildlife

How genetics can help us conserve threatened wildlife

Genes aren't just the blueprint of our bodies - they're a vital tool in wildlife conservation. Youth Council member, Katherine, looks at how genetics can help to prevent extinction.

Genes are the blueprint of our bodies. They are segments of DNA which hold the information required for our body to make proteins. Proteins are especially important, providing structure and support for the cells which make up our body.

Genetics are often applied in conservation in order to understand and reduce the risk of a species or population going extinct. By studying the genetic diversity in a population or a species, scientists are then able to determine the fitness of a population and therefore its chances of survival. High levels of extinction risk have been found to be associated with low genetic variation within a species. This is because the lack of variation within the gene pool can cause mutations, which will reduce the chances of them being able to adapt to changing situations, like climate change. It may also reduce their ability to reproduce effectively and therefore increase vulnerability.

An example of where a loss of genetic variation may have contributed to extinction is the Indian cheetah. Cheetahs’ genomes typically exceed 90 per cent homozygosity, which is a measurement of similarity between an individual’s genetics and the rest of the population. Exceeding 90 per cent homozygosity suggests that genetic variation was low. Because of factors such as poaching or capturing cheetahs for sport, the Indian cheetahs population was drastically reduced, which is known as a bottleneck effect. This leads to the remaining few individuals inbreeding, which further reduces the size of the gene pool. It also causes further decrease in genetic variability and increased risks of harmful mutations. Therefore, as previously mentioned, there is a reduction in reproductive fitness and a limited ability to adapt to environmental change which, overall, makes a species more vulnerable.

Another example of conservation genetics being applied to a particular species for management is the red squirrel. Though described by the IUCN as having a stable conservation status globally, in the UK (and particularly in England), red squirrels are extremely under threat. This is largely due to the introduction of the American grey squirrel in the 1800s, which not only competes for resources, but carries the squirrel pox virus, which is ineffective to grey squirrels yet fatal to reds. This is currently a huge issue in North Merseyside and West Lancashire, where outbreaks of squirrel pox continue to wipe out chunks of the red squirrel population. Other factors in their decline have included deforestation contributing to habitat loss. Unfortunately, without suitable protection and conservation management, red squirrels could become extinct in England in just 10 years.

Red Squirrel

Luke Massey/2020VISION

Red squirrels are our native squirrel species and are extremely important in the regeneration of our coniferous woodlands and mixed woods with alder trees. This is mainly due to being well-adapted to feed on the smaller seeds and therefore able to spread them, unlike grey squirrels, which rely on trees with large seeds. Coniferous woodland provides a vital habitat for many other at-risk species such as the goshawk, pine marten and wildcat. Therefore, it is essential that they are protected and regeneration is established.

Genetic conservation is often applied to the maintenance of red squirrel populations. In 2004, a study was carried out in Wales due to the decline of the red squirrel population and the risk of a genetic bottleneck occurring. Genetic management was applied to find out whether there is homozygosity (similarity of genes) within the selected groups gene pool. The data collected was able to determine future levels of homozygosity, therefore the diversity of the genes within this population. This allowed scientists to be able to come to conclusions regarding the next steps within conservation such as reintroduction and breeding programmes. These would create an opportunity for the current gene pool to diversify and avoid the bottleneck. This is turn would be an advantage to the current red squirrel population, as they would become less vulnerable, allowing numbers to increase.

Red Squirrel Project Officer, Rachel, training red squirrel detection dog, Max, in the woods

Max, the red squirrel detection dog

Lancashire Wildlife Trust has been working hard to help save red squirrels by not only managing their habitats, monitoring populations and putting suitable protections in place; but also by educating people and spreading awareness. The Trust worked as part of Red Squirrels United from 2016 - 2020, and continues to pioneer the use of conservation detection dogs to track down sick and dead red squirrels. This means the Trust can react more quickly to squirrel pox outbreaks and remove any dead squirrels that could continue to spread infection.

Overall, genetics can play a major role in the protection of a species, as issues such as decreasing variability in genes can be avoided. By identifying these problems within a population, it can prevent genetic mutations, and therefore reduce the chances of the species not being able to adapt fast enough to changing environments, which can lead to extinction.