Tag Archives: genetic diversity

What The Hell Is A Species Anyway?

The Sumatran tiger, which is different from other subspecies of tiger for reasons (Image Credit: Bernard Spragg, CC0 1.0)

We’re only 3 months in, but 2022 has been a hell of a year for species-related controversy. Grolar and pizzly bears have come roaring into public consciousness, researchers proclaimed that the T-Rex we know and love is actually three different species, and soon-to-be minted Doctor Yi-Kai Tea has been sinking and raising some truly glorious fish species like nobody’s business (we call this taxonomic ha-wrasse-ment).

With the classification calamities flying thick and fast, it’s easy to wonder exactly what it is about naming a species that is so damn hard. So let’s have a quick runthrough of what a species is, why taxonomy is so damn complicated, and why it even matters.

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Hairy Pawter and the Genetic Mix-Up

Red wolf and coyotes are an interesting conundrum when it comes to thinking of hybrids as ‘good or bad’. Thought to be a product of hybridisation between coyotes and grey wolves, red wolves have a lot of cultural significance in the southeastern United States. Native ranges of captive breeding programmes have worked at trying to re-introduce and establish red wolf populations in their historic ranges.

Yet these wolves have started having hybrid offspring with coyotes. This isn’t ideal, but because the red wolf population is so small, there isn’t a lot of genetic diversity among current red wolves. What if some ‘new’ genetic diversity can be found in wolf-coyote hybrids? There is a population of coyotes-not-coyotes in Galveston, Texas that have red wolf DNA – DNA that isn’t found in current red wolves! This ‘ghost’ DNA could be exactly what the doctor ordered when it comes to injecting some diversity back into the wolf population.

So if we were to breed (hybridise) the Galveston coyotes with red wolves we’d be introducing genetic diversity back into the population (yay!) but then also be making more hybrids, which… goes against what we would want – right? This is quite the tricky situation and has caused some head scratching when it comes to how best to approach this situation and really goes to show that we can’t be too black and white in our thinking.

The original research can be found here: Rediscovery of Red Wolf Ghost Alleles in a Canid Population Along the American Gulf Coast

Tanya Strydom is a PhD student at the Université de Montréal, mostly focusing on how we can use machine learning and artificial intelligence in ecology. Current research interests include (but are not limited to) predicting ecological networks, the role species traits and scale in ecological networks, general computer (and maths) geekiness, and a (seemingly) ever growing list of side projects. Tweets (sometimes related to actual science) can be found @TanyaS_08.

Meet the Inbreeders

Image Credit: Mike Baird, CC BY 2.0; Chuck Szmurlo, CC BY 3.0; Ryan Hagerty, USFWS, Public Domain)

Nowadays we know to avoid mating with close relatives so that your children are healthy. As close relatives accumulate similar genetic diversity, mating between relatives of most species can lead to genetic diseases in their offspring. Humans have a lot of options; there are 7 billion of us worldwide. But how about an endangered species with less than 10 individuals in the wild?

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