Conservation Genetics Applications

The practical applications of conservation genetics include analyzing fragmented populations in nature, determining units of conservation in nature, and monitoring captive populations. In general, conservation genetics integrates these types of information on particular species and populations to help prioritize areas for conservation.

Conservation genetics also plays a major role in guiding relocation and reintroduction efforts, in prioritizing species for conservation, and in designing captive-breeding programs. Identifying natural units based on system-atics and population genetics allows researchers and wildlife officials to track organisms in the wild and in zoos, and it lets them identify parts or products of endangered and threatened organisms that are used in illegal trade. Conservation geneticists may use genetic techniques to determine, for example, if certain individuals in the pet-trade were illegally taken from the wild versus bred from permitted captive breeding programs.

Some of the most common issues addressed by genetic techniques in conservation are those confronting small or fragmented populations. Genetic approaches in these cases allow researchers to assess the variability in these populations, as well as to assess whether there is any history or future danger of loss of genetic variability. Genetics can help conservation biologists do viability analyses (tests of how likely that a population will survive over time) by testing hypotheses concerning how long genetic variation might persist into the future. This might be done by examining current levels of genetic variation in a species or population, and integrating these pieces of information with demographic and life history models to examine what happens to genetic variation over time.

The use of a conservation genetics approach may be an effective way for assessing the status of populations and species in the wild. Populations that decrease in number while becoming increasingly fragmented by loss of habitat in the wild can experience a loss of genetic variation that could have a severe impact on their fitness and survival. Conservation genetics permits scientists to assess the impacts of habitat fragmentation and loss in the wild using both theoretical and empirical methods. Results from these studies allow managers to evaluate the viability of populations and design protected areas for conservation.

Sometimes conservation initiatives are also concerned with the translocation or reintroduction of animals to areas where they have been extirpated or severely depleted. Such reintroduction or translocation measures require a detailed understanding of the genetics of the populations being reintro-duced in order to ensure there is compatibility between populations as well as to maximize genetic variation and minimize the chance of inbreeding among related animals.

Determining the extent of genetic variation among captive populations in zoological parks and botanical gardens is also essential, because captive populations must have sufficient genetic variation so that they persist into the future without suffering from reduced fitness due to inbreeding and other effects associated with small populations. In some cases, captive populations may be viewed as a source for improving genetically or numerically depleted wild populations. However, they must be managed to minimize the effects of inbreeding. Accredited zoos, aquariums, and botanical gardens work to manage populations and establish conservation programs that strive to carefully manage the breeding of a species in captivity. The primary goal is to maintain a healthy and self-sustaining captive population that is both genetically diverse and demographically stable. Captive breeding specialists usually attempt to maximize the genetic health of a population by reconstructing pedigrees of the animals in the captive populations in order to understand and minimize how much inbreeding might occur.

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