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College of Veterinary Medicine team receives grant to save endangered species

by Rodney Tanaka

September 29, 2009

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The Institute of Museum and Library Services has awarded a National Leadership Grant of $100,000 to a team from Western University of Health Sciences’ College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) to improve the breeding programs of captive endangered species.

CVM faculty members and co-principal investigators Margaret Barr, DVM, PhD, Kristopher Irizarry, PhD, and Janis Joslin, DVM, will develop a strategy for using genetic analysis to maximize the breeding of snow leopards to enhance species diversity and robustness.

“This is an important project for the advancement of wildlife genomics, particularly for snow leopards,” said CVM Dean Phillip Nelson, DVM, PhD. “This is a preliminary project, which hopefully results in the awarding of a full NLG project grant. We’re proud of the investigators involved.”

Snow leopards will not be the only beneficiaries of this research, as the results are expected to be applicable to many other endangered species.

“Our goal is to have a good method for using genomic information as part of the decision-making process for the management of captive endangered species,” Dr. Barr said.

Snow leopards were chosen because they’re on the brink of extinction and they’re susceptible to a number of infectious diseases, such as bacterial pneumonia and gastrointestinal infections. They have been carefully managed by an international studbook since 1976. About 550 snow leopards are maintained in captivity worldwide, with about 150 managed by the North American Species Survival Plan (SSP).

With a very limited population, and therefore a limited gene pool, you have to be very careful which animals are bred together to enhance survivability of the species and to not cause harm, Dr. Barr said. Historically, zoos have carefully managed the breeding of the snow leopards and other endangered species by using a studbook to maximize genetic diversity of the population, much as dog breeders look to pick the most unrelated pair of dogs to breed. This project will give zoos another tool to identify the best breeding pairs to sustain the captive breeding populations.

The WesternU team will bring together potential project partners and consultants, including geneticists, immunologists and members of the North American Snow Leopard SSP. They will collect DNA samples of snow leopards and determine a draft of the snow leopard genome to identify specific genes associated with immune function.

Dr. Joslin is Veterinary Advisor for the Snow Leopard Species Survival Plan and has reviewed more than 400 medical records from captive snow leopards housed in zoos in North America since 1914. Careful analysis of medical problems along with the studbook data will be used to identify family lines that should be evaluated for potential immune deficiency.

The team will try to decode the genes of the snow leopard to look for those genes that contribute to health, Dr. Irizarry said. If there are 200 potential breeding partners and you only have a limited number of litters born per year, you want to maximize the genetic fitness of the offspring, he said.

Project partners include Todd Mockler, PhD, from Oregon State University, who will be responsible for sequencing the snow leopard genome, and Jay Tetzloff, Zoo Director of Miller Park Zoo, the Propagation Manager for the Snow Leopard Species Survival Plan, who will assist with the studbook analysis and identifying individual snow leopards for genetic analysis.

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