Some Spanish scientists have sequenced the genome of the Iberian lynx and have concluded that their DNA, which has been deteriorating for millennia, is currently less diverse than that of other endangered animals, such as the cheetah or the Tasmanian devil.
The Iberian lynx (Lynn pardinus) and the boreal or Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx), separated their paths some 300,000 years ago, although they continued to cross and exchange genes, both species separated definitively about 2,500 years.
Since then, the population of the Iberian lynx has gradually deteriorated until the mid-twentieth century, the persecution, the destruction of their habitat, and especially the two major viral epidemics that hit rabbits – their main source of Food – decimated the number of copies, until less than a hundred were left in the year 2002.
In order to study the history and above all to help the conservation of this animal, a multidisciplinary team of Spanish scientists from various institutions, coordinated by Doñana Biological Station (EBD), sequenced the genome of this animal.
The results, published in Genome Biology, indicate that the DNA of these felines has suffered “extreme erosion” and is among the lowest diversity genomes on planet Earth.
With new sequencing techniques, researchers were able to read and classify about 2,400 million letters of the DNA of Candiles, a male born in Sierra Morena (Spain), which is part of the captive breeding program of Iberian lynx.
The scientists identified 21,257 genes and found evidence of genetic changes related to hearing, sight and smell, as well as the adaptation of lynx to their environment, that is, those that made them good hunters.
The genomes of ten other specimens of Doñana and Sierra Morena were also analyzed and compared with a European lynx.
This study notes the low genetic diversity of the Iberian lynx, marked by three large demographic declines. “Some bottlenecks have been reducing the lynx population and its genetic diversity”, Efe, the project’s principal investigator and study coordinator, Jose Antonio Godoy of EBD, told EFE.
“Being confined to the Iberian Peninsula, the Iberian lynx has never been a very large population, but it has also suffered from several demographic crises that further undermined its genetic diversity”, said Godoy.
As a result of the low genetic wealth of lynx DNA, its genome is laden with “potentially harmful” genetic variants that may be reducing survival and reproduction rates of this species.
The researcher highlights the effectiveness of conservation measures adopted since 2000, such as captive breeding and cross-breeding, which have substantially improved the situation of the Iberian lynx and its genetics.