How Genetics Revolutionizes Conservation

By U.S. Department of the Interior,
U.S. Geological Survey

Below are some highlights of the U.S. Geological Survey conservation geneticists showcase that was held in March.

Who Done It? Genetics Used to Identify Bears that Mauled Women in Anchorage: In summer 2008, two Anchorage women were mauled by bears in the same area but about one month apart.  Alaska Department of Fish and Game killed a brown bear thought to be responsible for the attacks.  USGS scientists at the Alaska Science Center Molecular Ecology Laboratory used DNA evidence collected from the women’s clothing and a bicycle helmet to determine whether the bear killed was responsible for both attacks. They found that the women were mauled by different bears, but that the bear killed by state authorities was, in fact, responsible for one of the attacks. The researchers were able to distinguish among bears because they had already collated an extensive database of Anchorage brown bear genotypes as part of another research effort. The probability that this was not the bear responsible for the mauling was smaller than one in 10 million. The other bear, which did not appear in the extensive database, was not killed.  This research sets a higher standard for addressing issues of public safety, such as maulings by wild animals.  This work has shown that genetic techniques should be used to verify, when possible, that a responsible animal has been unequivocally identified.  Contact Sandra Talbot at 907-786-7188, [email protected].

Keeping Bats Safe: Use of Genetics to Study Effects of Wind Turbines: Numerous bats are killed by collisions with wind turbines in the U.S. and Canada, and as wind energy projects grow, bat deaths are likely to increase. This is of particular concern in the eastern United States where the most bat deaths occur and where many wind farms are being built. Bat mortality at wind farms occurs mostly during late summer and early fall, the peak migration period for many kinds of bats. Three migratory species of bats account for more than half of the fatalities at wind farms: red bats, hoary bats, and silver-haired bats, and USGS researchers are using genetic techniques to determine the effects of wind turbine mortality on their populations.  The potential for populations of these species to be severely affected by wind turbine kills is high due to their low reproductive rates.  Understanding these impacts can help inform regulatory and development investments within the rapidly growing wind power infrastructure. Contact John Switzer at 3304-724-4574, [email protected].

Genetics Plays Essential Role in Manatee Studies: Genetic identification, or DNA fingerprinting, offers the opportunity to identify and monitor individual West Indian manatees to help understand survival rates and life-history traits of this threatened species.  Although scar patterns from boat strikes, as well as natural marks, have been used to identify and track individual manatees, this technique can’t be used for unscarred and young manatees or decomposed carcasses. Genetic fingerprinting, however, enables researchers to ‘mark’ an unscarred manatee and then ‘recapture’ it throughout its life.  Genetic information is also being used to assess whether small, isolated manatee populations are genetically fit, as well as to determine that the Florida and Puerto Rico manatees do not interbreed and thus may benefit from separate management actions.  Contact Margaret Hunter at 3552-264-3484, [email protected] or Bob Bonde at 352-264-3555, [email protected].

American Ginseng: Genetics Unraveling Clues to Protection Needs: American ginseng is a native North American herb harvested for the medicinal qualities of its root, particularly for export to Asian markets.  Ginseng export provides a supplementary income for people in the Appalachian Mountains, but recent increases in the market value of American ginseng roots have intensified legal and illegal harvesting. Concerns of possible over-harvest led to the listing of ginseng by Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.  Consequently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must determine whether the export of American ginseng will be detrimental to the survival of the species, and whether wild-harvest is sustainable. USGS scientists and their colleagues developed models that predict the distribution of habitats suitable for American ginseng and sampled ginseng populations in 14 states to assess population status, habitat characteristics, and genetic variation among sites. This information will help FWS determine the status and protection needs of this species. Contact John Young at 304-724-4469 or [email protected].

Sea Otters, Contaminants, and Disease: Studies of genes have the exciting potential for monitoring long-term effects of contaminants and disease on free-ranging sea otters. The response of genes to these stressors can help unravel how sea otters may be harmed over time and lead to the design of preventative strategies or therapeutic treatments to protect susceptible populations and individuals. USGS researchers and their colleagues are identifying and assessing specific genetic markers that reveal the functions of a sea otter’s immune system to combat injuries associated with chronic exposure to organic and inorganic contaminants and pathogens. Contact Keith Miles at 530-752-5365, [email protected].

Birds of a Fingerprinted Feather: Sage-grouse have declined throughout their entire range, largely due to the loss and fragmentation of sagebrush habitat. Energy development and climate change also threaten this species. Because each animal has a unique molecular fingerprint, USGS is using DNA as an individual tag for mark-recapture studies. DNA samples can now be obtained without catching the birds, since it can be extracted from feathers and feces. In addition, researchers are identifying how landscape features affected by climate change, as well as human-caused stresses such as energy development, influence gene flow and connectivity among sage-grouse populations. This can inform managers about which habitats are most important for conservation and provide them with strategies to lessen effects of climate change and energy development on the species. Contact Sara Oyler-McCance at 303-871-7782, [email protected].

Contaminants from the Inside Out: Many environmental contaminants affect reproductive and developmental processes in wildlife, sometimes with extremely adverse effects on exposed animals. Such effects occur in part when contaminants bind to important receptor molecules in an animal, including DNA, resulting in basic developmental, reproductive, behavioral, immunological, or physiological changes.  USGS researchers are using genetic tools to investigate the exposure and effects of contaminants in wildlife, particularly endocrine-disrupting chemicals that mimic hormones or otherwise interfere with the endocrine system. This work can provide sensitive measures of exposure and damage in wild species, and help predict the variability in sensitivity to particular pollutants among species. Contact Natalie Karouna-Renier at 301-497-5724, [email protected]

A Small Woodrat, a Large Conservation Story: The endangered Key Largo woodrat is native to the tropical hardwood hammocks of Key Largo, Fla., but fewer than 200 individuals remain in the wild in populations widely separated from each other. When an animal’s numbers get so low, a biologically sound genetic management program is essential to preserve genetic diversity and fitness. Using genetic research, USGS researchers and their partners developed a successful captive-breeding program for the species and are investigating the genetic diversity of woodrats remaining in the wild. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also altered its recovery strategy to help further gene flow among the small, fragmented wild populations.  Captive-bred woodrats have recently been reintroduced into the wild to determine the feasibility of re-introducing individuals to the wild.  The repatriation program has been designed to re-establish connectivity among recently isolated populations to minimize the likelihood of extinction of the subspecies.  Contact Tim L. King at 304-724-4450, [email protected].

Where Are You Gonna Go? Migratory Birds and Climate Change: Climate change may be the greatest threat to migratory birds, and so scientists are scrambling to understand how it may be affecting major ecological phenomena such as the pathways of migratory birds.  Already, changes in climatic conditions have put many migratory birds at tremendous risk because of extreme declines in precipitation on wintering grounds. Likewise, warmer temperatures have caused some species to breed sooner, farther north or at higher altitudes, disrupting natural cycles. To ensure success for the millions of migratory birds that inhabit our hemisphere, this ever-changing landscape needs to be understood. Consequently, the USGS-Smithsonian CLIMB Initiative (Climate Change and Interseasonal Movement of Birds) is mapping current and predicting future migratory connectivity for birds living in the Western Hemisphere. This long-term research program will be the largest avian research project ever undertaken.  Other partners include U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, World Wildlife Fund, National Wildlife Federation, and Ducks Unlimited. Contact Susan Haig at 541-750-7482,  susan_h[email protected], or Laurie Allen at 703-648-4019, [email protected].

Genetics Helping Unravel Movement of Deadly Fish Virus:
Genetic studies are helping researchers identify the origin and risks of a newly emerging and deadly fish virus in the rivers of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. The new virus, referred to as the M-D strain of infectious hematopoietic necrosis virus, is highly lethal to steelhead trout. The emergence of this virus into the geographically separate watersheds in the Olympic Peninsula threatens genetically distinct stocks of steelhead trout. The origin and risks of this virus must be assessed so that the fisheries managers can have better tools to control it and to help protect wild steelhead. USGS researchers are using genetics and controlled fish experiments to understand how the virus is moving between watersheds and how epidemics of this disease would threaten wild animals in affected watersheds. Contact Rachel B. Life at 206-526-6282, x278, [email protected], or Gael Kurath at 206-526-6282, x279, [email protected].

The Snakehead: Tracking the Movement of a Dangerous Invasive Species: The establishment of northern snakehead, a highly predatory invasive species now found in the tidal Potomac River, is expected to have significant ecological impacts.  Using microsatellite DNA markers, USGS researchers are working on determining the spread of this species, its population structure, and possible control techniques. For managers to have strategies that will help eradicate this species, a thorough understanding of dispersal and movement in the Potomac River and its many tributaries is essential. Contact Tim L. King at 304-724-4450, [email protected].

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