Molecular Approaches to Conservation Biology

Many of our research projects have direct implications for the conservation and management of wild populations, and some are designed from the outset to help inform conservation activities. Some recent examples include:

Documenting cryptic biological diversity

australiaConservation often rests on an understanding of the diversity that is available to be conserved. As part of our studies of phylogenetic and phylogeographic relationships, we frequently discover populations and species that harbor previously unsuspected levels of evolutionary distinctiveness. This can lead to the recognition of new units for conservation, whether they be elevated to the status of newly separated species or defined as special subsets of more widespread species. Our long-standing and continuing studies of avian groups like wood-warblers, starlings, and mockingbirds have substantially improved our understanding of the systematics and classification of these birds, and our studies of Australian skinks (led by former grad student Dan Rabosky) have helped make sense of the evolutionary diversity in a radiation that includes dozens (if not hundreds) of species that generally look very similar to one another. Conservation was a central motivator for the comparative phylogeographic studies led by former undergrad Nick Sly and former grad student Andrea Townsend on the avifauna of Hispaniola. Our current studies that use genomic tools to explore speciation, hybridization, and introgression will further elucidate the status and distinctiveness of populations and species.

Understanding demography, dispersal, and gene flow

floridaSome of our past and recent projects have had explicit conservation motivations. Our range-wide assessment of gene flow and dispersal in the Florida Scrub-Jay (led in our lab by former postdoc Aurelie Coulon) helped us understand how the rapidly declining populations of this endemic species had been connected in the past, and how increasing habitat fragmentation was steadily lowering dispersal among the remaining populations and contributing to the local extinction of many such populations. These findings have now been incorporated directly into the state-wide management plan for this species. Graduate student Yula Kapetanakos looked at dispersal in endangered species in a very different context, using DNA-based ‘genetic tags’ in feathers dropped by Old World vulture at feeding sites in Cambodia and Kazakhstan to imprive our understanding of the demography and movements of these exceptionally rare birds. Some of our other past projects have used genetic techniques to track the movement of tropical forest birds through fragmented landscapes (as in studies of manakins in Costa Rica by former undergrad Jake Berv), or to assess the general dispersal ability of different tropical birds (as in studies of Panamanian understory species by Irby and collaborators from Oregon State University).

Other conservation applications

“Conservation Genetics” is a field with appropriately fuzzy boundaries, and many of our studies described under other research tabs have some type of conservation utility. For example, mating behavior and social interactions can influence population viability; sex ratios can influence the number reproductively successful individuals within a population; directional hybridization can swamp a population with a surfeit of ‘foreign’ genes; and diseases and pathogens can lower individual fitness.

 Relevant publications

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