Data-deficient species are a conservation blind spot. Geneticists found a way to see that.

In the universe of endangered species, there is a blind spot. These are so-called „data deficient” species, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the gold standard for monitoring the fate of its Red List species. And colloquially, the phrase means „we don’t know what the hell is going on.”

This is not a minor oversight. All told, there are more than 20,000 species, almost 14% of the red list species. It’s there The Earth Serpent of the Barbarian, a slender brown creature found in Costa Rica. It’s there Retrophyllum piracei, A A Brazilian conifer with fern-like leaves. There are the humpnose unicornfish, the southern Honduran spiny-tail iguana, the Central American red bracket (a type of small deer), and many more.

Behind this „data gap” label lies a larger story about the lack of basic information about many species: how many there are, where they are found, and whether their numbers are declining. Trapped in this data-free limbo, species can easily be overlooked by ecologists, policymakers, and the general public, even if they’re on the brink of extinction.

It also highlights the challenge scientists face in gathering enough information about these organisms to figure out what’s happening to them. So many species, so few scientists.

Now, geneticists hope to help tackle the problem by harnessing the growing library of genetic data on species, made easier by our understanding of entire animal genomes and growing computing power to make sense of them all.

„Conserving wildlife species requires testing for the limited resources available,” said Megan Supple, a geneticist at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). „Our genetic assay provides a relatively inexpensive method to quickly identify species at risk of extinction in the future, when little else is known about that species.”

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It was part of a larger initiative called Supple Zoonomy. The project, which involves more than 30 labs at several dozen research institutions, aims to learn more about what makes the world’s mammals tick — at a genetic level — by comparing the genomes of 240 mammal species ranging from a tiny shrew to the size of a bus. killer shark The group recently published findings on everything from the genetic basis Athletic feats of famous sled dog Balto For ways to zero Genetic origin of some human diseases.

When it comes to biodiversity, scientists have begun looking to see if an animal’s DNA contains clues about whether an entire species is at risk of extinction.

The basic idea is that an animal’s genome contains evidence about the health of a species. In general, a larger number of animals in a species contributes to health and resilience because it provides greater genetic diversity. Harmful genetic mutations are less likely to dominate from one generation to the next, for example, if they are diluted into animals that carry that mutation pair with others.

Overall, the researchers found that among 240 mammals, the threatened species had different genetic risk factors. Their genomes had evidence of smaller ancient populations, had more mutations in the parts of their DNA that tell the body how to make new proteins, and showed more genetic similarity between parents.

When researchers plugged 13 different genetic variables into a computer model designed to predict extinction risk, it accurately predicted whether or not a species was at risk of extinction 69 to 82% of the time, depending on the specific model. reported Last week Science.

Although this is better than the 50% that would come from a coin flip, it is worse than if the model had been given detailed environmental data about a species, such as the age at which an animal was weaned, the age at first birth, and age. reaches sexual maturity. Then, the computer got 88% correct answer.

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But, as the saying goes, never let the perfect be the enemy of the good. In this case, the scientists noted that although the genetic analysis is imperfect, scientists can give a hint of the origins of which species warrant a closer look, generating this ecological information.

To illustrate, they compared the risks of extinction from the genomes of the blind mole rat of the Upper Galilee, the killer whale, and the Javan lessor chevrotine, a type of rabbit-sized deer. All these species are listed as „data deficient” by the IUCN. According to genetic-based models, the mole rat had the lowest probability of being threatened (11 to 44%) while the whale had the highest (35 to 68%).

„Our results show that an individual’s genome can be sufficient to identify the most threatened of these 'data-deficient’ species, helping us focus our limited resources,” said Beth Shapiro, a UCSC scientist involved in the work.

This will help tell scientists where to shine some light on those species in the shadows.

Wilder et al. Eel. „Contribution of historical processes to contemporary extinction risk in placental mammals.Science. April 27, 2023.

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