As human populations grow, space for wildlife continues to shrink, resulting in small, fragmented populations, especially in the case of species that need large territories.
Natural mechanisms for maintaining biodiversity include the movement of animals between groups, usually through the migration of individuals outside of their home ranges. However, parks and reserves are surrounded by fences to prevent the movement of wildlife into human communities and interfaces with livestock. The result is a limited number of individual animals that can maintain the genetic pool. Inbreeding can lead to decreased fitness of the population to adapt to challenges, such as changes in the environment or to the introduction of disease that result in their local extinction.
Conservation programmes address this threat by using tools such as translocation (capture, transport and release) of animals between isolated populations to maintain genetic diversity. However, decisions are based on knowledge of the expected genetic relatedness of animals that is based on observed breeding and the identification of the offspring produced. This can be difficult in the case of elusive wildlife species. New techniques such as whole-genome sequencing, which identifies the genetic code of the animal and allows comparison between individuals, can provide definitive measures of relatedness and inform management decisions.
The African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) is critically endangered, with a global population of just over 6 000, and only 450 individuals in fragmented ranges in South Africa. Translocation between populations is used to maintain their genetic diversity.
Tina Meiring, a doctoral student in SU's Animal TB Research Group and the Genetics Research Group in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, is applying whole-genome sequencing, a technique new to studying wild dogs and their genetic makeup, to blood samples taken from individual wild dogs in the Kruger National Park. In this park, the wild dog population is self-sustaining, which enables her to investigate the relatedness of animals.
Meiring's preliminary data suggest that only 13% of the wild dogs sampled were unrelated in a small-sample cohort. Ongoing studies will provide an important foundation for informing management decisions related to conservation. It will also inform decisions about translocations and management of the species by evaluating genetic factors that impact on disease susceptibility and adaptability to environmental changes.
* This article featured in the latest edition of Stellenbosch University (SU)'s multi-award winning publication Research at Stellenbosch University . Produced annually by SU's Division for Research Development (DRD), this flagship publication offers the national and international research community as well as other interested parties a comprehensive, yet accessible overview of innovative and interesting research being done at the institution.The theme of the edition is Research for Impact which is one of SU's core strategic themes from its Vision 2040 and Strategic Framework 2019–2024.
Click here to access the virtual copy.