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Unzipping Wildlife Genes: Genetics Revolutionize Conservation Research

Who Done It? Genetics Used to Identify Bears that Mauled Women in Anchorage: In summer 2008, two Anchorage women were mauled by bears in the same area but about one month apart.  Alaska Department of Fish and Game killed a brown bear thought to be responsible for the attacks.  USGS scientists at the Alaska Science Center Molecular Ecology Laboratory used DNA evidence collected from the women's clothing and a bicycle helmet to determine whether the bear killed was responsible for both attacks. They found that the women were mauled by different bears, but that the bear killed by state authorities was, in fact, responsible for one of the attacks. The researchers were able to distinguish among bears because they had already collated an extensive database of Anchorage brown bear genotypes as part of another research effort. The probability that this was not the bear responsible for the mauling was smaller than one in 10 million. The other bear, which did not appear in the extensive database, was not killed.  This research sets a higher standard for addressing issues of public safety, such as maulings by wild animals.  This work has shown that genetic techniques should be used to verify, when possible, that a responsible animal has been unequivocally identified.  Contact Sandra Talbot at 907-786-7188, stalbot@usgs.gov.

Keeping Bats Safe: Use of Genetics to Study Effects of Wind Turbines: Numerous bats are killed by collisions with wind turbines in the U.S. and Canada, and as wind energy projects grow, bat deaths are likely to increase. This is of particular concern in the eastern United States where the most bat deaths occur and where many wind farms are being built. Bat mortality at wind farms occurs mostly during late summer and early fall, the peak migration period for many kinds of bats. Three migratory species of bats account for more than half of the fatalities at wind farms: red bats, hoary bats, and silver-haired bats, and USGS researchers are using genetic techniques to determine the effects of wind turbine mortality on their populations.  The potential for populations of these species to be severely affected by wind turbine kills is high due to their low reproductive rates.  Understanding these impacts can help inform regulatory and development investments within the rapidly growing wind power infrastructure. Contact John Switzer at 3304-724-4574, jswitzer@usgs.gov.

Genetics Plays Essential Role in Manatee Studies: Genetic identification, or DNA fingerprinting, offers the opportunity to identify and monitor individual West Indian manatees to help understand survival rates and life-history traits of this threatened species.  Although scar patterns from boat strikes, as well as natural marks, have been used to identify and track individual manatees, this technique can't be used for unscarred and young manatees or decomposed carcasses. Genetic fingerprinting, however, enables researchers to 'mark' an unscarred manatee and then 'recapture' it throughout its life.  Genetic information is also being used to assess whether small, isolated manatee populations are genetically fit, as well as to determine that the Florida and Puerto Rico manatees do not interbreed and thus may benefit from separate management actions.  Contact Margaret Hunter at 3552-264-3484, mkellogg@usgs.gov or Bob Bonde at 352-264-3555, rbonde@usgs.gov.

American Ginseng: Genetics Unraveling Clues to Protection Needs: American ginseng is a native North American herb harvested for the medicinal qualities of its root, particularly for export to Asian markets.  Ginseng export provides a supplementary income for people in the Appalachian Mountains, but recent increases in the market value of American ginseng roots have intensified legal and illegal harvesting. Concerns of possible over-harvest led to the listing of ginseng by Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.  Consequently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must determine whether the export of American ginseng will be detrimental to the survival of the species, and whether wild-harvest is sustainable. USGS scientists and their colleagues developed models that predict the distribution of habitats suitable for American ginseng and sampled ginseng populations in 14 states to assess population status, habitat characteristics, and genetic variation among sites. This information will help FWS determine the status and protection needs of this species. Contact John Young at 304-724-4469 or jyoung@usgs.gov.

Sea Otters, Contaminants, and Disease: Studies of genes have the exciting potential for monitoring long-term effects of contaminants and disease on free-ranging sea otters. The response of genes to these stressors can help unravel how sea otters may be harmed over time and lead to the design of preventative strategies or therapeutic treatments to protect susceptible populations and individuals. USGS researchers and their colleagues are identifying and assessing specific genetic markers that reveal the functions of a sea otter's immune system to combat injuries associated with chronic exposure to organic and inorganic contaminants and pathogens. Contact Keith Miles at 530-752-5365, keith_miles@usgs.gov.

Birds of a Fingerprinted Feather: Sage-grouse have declined throughout their entire range, largely due to the loss and fragmentation of sagebrush habitat. Energy development and climate change also threaten this species. Because each animal has a unique molecular fingerprint, USGS is using DNA as an individual tag for mark-recapture studies. DNA samples can now be obtained without catching the birds, since it can be extracted from feathers and feces. In addition, researchers are identifying how landscape features affected by climate change, as well as human-caused stresses such as energy development, influence gene flow and connectivity among sage-grouse populations. This can inform managers about which habitats are most important for conservation and provide them with strategies to lessen effects of climate change and energy development on the species. Contact Sara Oyler-McCance at 303-871-7782, sara_oyler_mccance@usgs.gov.

Contaminants from the Inside Out: Many environmental contaminants affect reproductive and developmental processes in wildlife, sometimes with extremely adverse effects on exposed animals. Such effects occur in part when contaminants bind to important receptor molecules in an animal, including DNA, resulting in basic developmental, reproductive, behavioral, immunological, or physiological changes.  USGS researchers are using genetic tools to investigate the exposure and effects of contaminants in wildlife, particularly endocrine-disrupting chemicals that mimic hormones or otherwise interfere with the endocrine system. This work can provide sensitive measures of exposure and damage in wild species, and help predict the variability in sensitivity to particular pollutants among species. Contact Natalie Karouna-Renier at 301-497-5724, nkarouna@usgs.gov

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