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Set of Genetic Studies Focuses on Conservation in Latin America


NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – A collection of papers appearing in the latest issue of the Journal of Heredity is illustrating ways in which genetic strategies can be applied to conserving and protecting wildlife in Latin American countries.

"Latin America has an unusual level of biodiversity, and is also undergoing unprecedented development, making the region of particular conservation concern," Kathryn Rodriguez-Clark, an editor who worked on the issue, said in a statement.

The 15 studies touched on everything from population studies of potentially threatened plant or animal species to the use of genetic barcodes for busting bird smugglers or curbing unwitting consumer consumption of unappetizing fish species.

As explained in an article introducing the work, the studies stemmed from a decade-long effort spurred on by the Conservation Genetics Network (ReGeneC) — an organization that hosts conservation genetics courses and workshops for South American students and investigators each year. The work was presented at a conservation genetics symposium in Venezuela in 2014.

In an analysis by Brazilian researchers, for example, a dozen microsatellite markers offered a look at genetic diversity in 52 jaguars from four populations in a tropical wetland region in Brazil known as Pantanal and in a forested area on the country's Atlantic coast.

Based on comparisons between the samples, that team concluded that genetic diversity is high amongst the geographically connected jaguar populations in the Pantanal, but waning in jaguars from fragmented Atlantic forest habitats.

A team from Chile, the US, and Canada saw similar declines in genetic diversity in a smaller feline species called the guigna, or Leopardus guigna, from southern Chile's Chiloé Island when it considered mitochondrial sequences, microsatellite markers, and sex chromosome gene patterns.

The collection also included genetic marker-based population studies of pied tamarins in Brazil; scalloped hammerhead sharks and giant otters in Colombia; South American maned wolves living in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, and Uruguay; and Chile's marbled water frogs or puye fish.

Researchers from Argentina and Chile searched for diversity hotspots using marker sequences for hundreds of tree populations in Chile, while an international team scrutinized black-tailed prairie dog distributions in Mexico and the US. Similarly, investigators in Cuba and Canada reconstructed genetic diversity and relationship patterns for captive Cuban Amazon parrots in the Amazona leucocephala species.

Other research pointed to the possibility of using genetics to deter illegal animal trafficking. For example, a team that used microsatellite and mitochondrial sequence markers to explore population structure in hyacinth macaws from three parts of Brazil uncovered population stratification patterns that showed promise for tracing two-dozen confiscated birds back to their original homes.

Meanwhile, researchers from University of São Paulo's biosciences institute used DNA barcoding to thwart an attempted parrot egg smuggling effort.

Using cytochrome oxidase markers in the mitochondrial genome and 16S ribosomal gene sequences, they tested 58 bird eggs seized at a Brazilian airport from a man who maintained that they were quail eggs.

As it turned out, 57 of the eggs had DNA barcodes that most closely resembled Brazilian parrot species such as Alipiopsitta xanthops, Ara ararauna, or parrots in the Amazona aestiva-A. ochrocephala complex, while the remaining egg was genetically identified as an owl. 

For their part, members of a Brazilian team led by investigators at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro relied on targeted cytochrome b gene barcode sequences to scrutinize supermarket fish samples in an attempt to determine whether fish labeled as douradinha were actually an unappetizing scavenger catfish Calophysus macropterus, locally referred to as piracatinga, which is sometimes caught using endangered river dolphin meat and caiman meat as bait.

Some 60 percent of the 62 fish fillets the team tested — collected at supermarkets and fish shops in Brazil — contained piracatinga sequences, while stomach samples from two of the fish revealed river dolphin DNA.

Finally, in an effort to understand population patterns for a more appetizing freshwater fish species called Piaractus brachypomus, researchers from Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela looked at microsatellite markers, mitochondrial DNA sequences, and body shape features to differentiate between sub-populations in two different water basins in the Amazon and Orinoco.