Rare Ethiopian Wolves Under Threat
October 27, 2012

Low Genetic Diversity Of Ethiopian Wolves Puts Them At Risk

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Ethiopian wolf populations are genetically fragmenting, scientists say. This is cause for concern because the Ethiopian wolf is the world's rarest canine and fewer than 500 of Africa's only wolf species remain in the wild, according to BBC News.

A 12-year study of the wolves, published in the journal Animal Conservation, reveals that there is little genetic flow between the small remaining populations in the Ethiopian highlands, putting them at greater risk of extinction.

Dada Gottelli of the Zoological Society of London, along with colleagues in the UK and Germany, studied the genetic diversity, patterns of gene flow, and population structure among 72 wild Ethiopian wolves.

There are seven remaining populations of Ethiopian wolves, and the team sampled individuals living in six of them, as well as one population from Mount Choke that has subsequently become extinct, reports the British news agency. What they found was a surprisingly high ratio of genetic diversity for a species that has declined to fewer than 500 individuals.

This high level of diversity might be because discrete populations of wolves survived in Africa after the last glaciation period, which ended 18,000 years ago. A number of rare gene types became fixed and maintained in these separate groups. This isolation is working against the wolves now, though.

Through studying 14 separate locations on the wolf genome, the researchers found that gene flow between the groups is weak. One possible reason for this could be that the wolves prefer very specific habitats and are also unlikely to travel long distances.

One worrying finding was the discovery of isolated sub-populations within each population.

According to BBC reporter Matt Walker, one further threat to their future comes from habitat loss and fragmentation, processes that may be accelerated by climate change.

The researchers worry that the wolves will not have the genetic diversity to fight off disease or adapt to new habitats as theirs changes. There is also a danger of mutation through inbreeding.

The scientific team says efforts must be made to reconnect these isolated populations. They suggest creating habitat corridors linking the populations.

"It may be necessary in the near future to artificially increase population size and restore gene flow between nearby populations," the researchers write in their report.