Conservation takes many approaches. On one hand, there’s the on-the-ground work in the field to protect wildlife from poachers, snares, and illegal trafficking. There is also another side to conservation that takes place within a laboratory, where scientists are treating wildlife on a genetic level to make sure that populations are reproducing successfully and managed properly. Our partners at Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) are outstanding field based conservationists, and they have now also reached an extraordinary accomplishment through a collaboration with the Program for Conservation Genomics at Stanford University. For the first time ever, the genomes of three endangered painted dogs—two painted dog sisters in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, and a third from an individual from the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka, MO, provided by the Saint Louis Zoo—have been assembled de novo, ‘from the beginning’ for the study. Now armed with the painted dog genome, scientists will have a complete map of their genetic makeup.
A genome is like a blueprint, the complete set of genes on chromosomes that are present in a cell, that create a map of what an organism is made of. In the past few decades, conservationists have been using genetics as a tool for research and management of wildlife populations. As humans use land for various purposes, such as development or agriculture, wildlife habitat gets fragmented which can isolate different species and subsequently limit their genetic diversity. This is true for painted dogs, but now with the painted dog genome mapped, conservationists will be able to make informed decisions about human land use like roads and land development to ensure painted dogs have an ideal population structure and enough genetic variations . Mapping the painted dog genome will also help with the success of conservation breeding programs. This is because diseases like uterine disease, which affect painted dogs more than any other wild canid, affects their fertility, but can now be addressed on a genetic level. With the painted dog genome, scientists will be able to find out about what is causing diseases like this, how to treat them, and hopefully increase the populations of painted dogs.
Peter Blinston of PDC is optimistic about the opportunities this milestone will give to the world of painted dog conservation. “We believe that understanding the genetic makeup of the African wild dogs will contribute to their conservation and management over time.”