Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online
It has been obvious that some lions in Ethiopia have a large, dark mane, extending from the head, neck and chest to the belly, but it wasn’t known if these lions were a genetically distinct population.
Researchers found that captive lions at the Addis Ababa Zoo in Ethiopia are actually genetically distinct from all lion populations both in Africa and Asia.
The team compared DNA samples from 15 Addis Ababa Zoo lions to lion breeds in the wild, including eight males and seven females.
“To our knowledge, the males at Addis Ababa Zoo are the last existing lions to possess this distinctive mane. Both microsatellite and mitochondrial DNA data suggest the zoo lions are genetically distinct from all existing lion populations for which comparative data exist,” principal investigator Professor Michi Hofreiter, of the Department of Biology at the University of York, said in a press release.
He said they believe the lions should be treated as a distinct conservation management unit, and they are asking for immediate conservation actions like a captive breeding program.
Lions are principal terrestrial predators in Africa and are a key species of the savannah ecosystem. However, their numbers are in decline and two significant populations have already become extinct in the wild.
Ethiopia is one region with a declining lion population, which includes just a few hundred wild lions and about 20 Addis Ababa Zoo lions. The zoo lions belonged to the collection of the late emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. Selassie established the zoo in 1948, and the seven founder lions are claimed to have been captured in south-western Ethiopia.
The team is recommending establishing a captive breeding program as the first step towards conserving this unique lion population.
“A great amount of genetic diversity in lions has most likely already been lost, largely due to human influences,” Susann Bruche, with Imperial College London and lead author of the paper published in the European Journal of Wildlife Research, said in a press release. “Every effort should be made to preserve as much of the lion’s genetic heritage as possible.”
She said they hope field surveys will identify wild relatives of the Addis Ababa Zoo lions in the future, but conserving captive populations is a crucial first step. “Our results show that these zoo lions harbor sufficient genetic diversity to warrant a captive breeding program.”
Previous suggestions said no lions comparable to the Addis Ababa Zoo lions existed in the wild, mostly because they were hunted for their mane. However, Ethiopian authorities say lions with similar appearance to those at the zoo still exist in the east and north-east of the country.
The researchers say these regions should be prioritized for field surveys.
“A key question is which wild population did the zoo lions originate from and whether this wild population still exists; this would obviously make it a priority for conservation,”
“What is clear is that these lions did not originate in the zoo, but come from somewhere in the wild – but not from any of the populations for which comparative data is available,” Hofreiter said in the release.