The European big cat population is in danger of extinction as genetics show the population is on the verge of collapse


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Scientists warn that unless action is taken soon, the Eurasian lynx will disappear from France. Reintroduced to Switzerland in the 1970s, this elusive wildcat migrated across the French border late in the decade. But a genetic study published in Frontiers in Conservation Science showed that the lynx population in France urgently needs help to survive.

“Given the rapid loss of genetic diversity, we estimate that this population will become extinct in less than 30 years,” said Nathan Huvier of the Center Athenas, corresponding author. “This population is in dire need of new genetic material to become sustainable.”

The missing lynx

This population of lynx, hidden deep in the Jura, is not well known. Observations by scientists put its size at a maximum of 150 adults and suggest that it is poorly associated with larger, healthier populations in Germany and Switzerland and does not reach a sustainable size. Scientists believe a combination of poaching, car accidents, and inbreeding depression — where insufficient genetic diversity leads to reproductive and survival problems — has stifled their growth.

“As France lacks genetic surveillance of the lynx and we believe it is crucial for the conservation of the species, we have taken the lead and done this work,” said Huvier.

The team collected genetic samples between 2008 and 2020 with the aim of determining the population’s genetic health. Due to the precarious population, samples were taken when caring for injured, dead or orphaned lynxes in order to avoid stress in healthy animals.

“For us, this method is more ethical because there is no capture and therefore no stress induced just for DNA sampling,” explained Huvier.

The team managed to secure a total of 88 samples, more than half of the estimated population. Some samples were excluded to maximize the reliability of the results: those with a low amplification rate, or genetic loci that could not be genotyped, or that occurred in only one allelic form, although data from other populations indicated that several different forms usually existed would occur a population. After this process was complete, they had 78 samples covering 23 genetic loci.

emergency measures required

These genetic samples were compared to references derived from the Carpathian parental population. The scientists found that although the size of the French lynx population is estimated at 120 to 150 individuals, the effective population size — the estimated number of healthy breeding animals needed to show this level of genetic diversity — is only about 38 individuals. The authors warn that this is likely an overestimate, so the number could be even lower. Even more alarmingly, the inbreeding coefficient — a measure of how likely it is that two mating individuals from the same population are closely related — is extremely high. There is a 41% chance that a person’s two copies of an allele, anywhere in their genome, were inherited from a common ancestor in both parents. New genetic material is urgently needed, otherwise the population will collapse.

The authors acknowledged that introducing more lynx is politically difficult. They suggested that road signs raising awareness of the presence of lynx and stricter enforcement of the law where poaching is proven would help protect the remaining population. In the meantime, replacing poached lynx with animals from genetically healthier populations and swapping orphaned cubs between wildlife sanctuaries would help save them from genetic collapse.

“We want this work to support lynx conservation efforts,” said Huvier. “Reintroduction, replacement of poached lynx and exchange of orphaned lynx between care centers is the best short-term solution to keep this population alive and will give it a chance to develop and connect with other populations in Europe.”

More information:
Nathan Huvier et al, Time is running out: Microsatellite data predict imminent extinction of the boreal lynx (Lynx lynx) in France, Frontiers in Conservation Science (2023). DOI: 10.3389/fcosc.2023.1080561

Citation: European Big Cat Population Critically Endangered as Genetics Show Population Close to Collapse (2023 February 13) retrieved February 13, 2023 from -big-cat-population-threatened .html

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