Patterns of Genetic Diversity in Remaining Giant Panda Populations

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Conservation Biology, Vol: 15, Issue: 6, Page: 1596-1607

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Lu, Zhi; Johnson, Warren E.; Menotti-Raymond, Marilyn; Yuhki, Naoya; Martenson, Janice S.; Mainka, Susan; Shi-Qiang, Huang; Zhihe, Zheng; Li, Guanghan; Pan, Wenshi; Mao, Xiarong; O'Brien, Stephen J. Show More Hide
Biodiversity; Genetics and Genomics; Zoology
article description
The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) is among the more familiar symbols of species conservation. The protection of giant panda populations has been aided recently by the establishment of more and better-managed reserves in existing panda habitat located in six mountain ranges in western China. These remaining populations are becoming increasingly isolated from one another, however, leading to the concern that historic patterns of gene flow will be disrupted and that reduced population sizes will lead to diminished genetic variability. We analyzed four categories of molecular genetic markers (mtDNA restriction-fragment-length polymorphisms [RFLP], mtDNA control region sequences, nuclear multilocus DNA fingerprints, and microsatellite size variation) in giant pandas from three mountain populations (Qionglai, Minshan, and Qinling) to assess current levels of genetic diversity and to detect evidence of historic population subdivisions. The three populations had moderate levels of genetic diversity compared with similarly studied carnivores for all four gene measures, with a slight but consistent reduction in variability apparent in the smaller Qinling population. That population also showed significant differentiation consistent with its isolation since historic times. From a strictly genetic perspective, the giant panda species and the three populations look promising insofar as they have retained a large amount of genetic diversity in each population, although evidence of recent population reduction—likely from habitat loss—is apparent. Ecological management to increase habitat, population expansion, and gene flow would seem an effective strategy to stabilize the decline of this endangered species.