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Manatee subspecies genetically confirmed, but diversity challenge looms
Date:9/13/2010

Gainesville, FL. -- The first genetic study to compare nuclear DNA of endangered Antillean manatees in Belize with Florida manatees confirmed their designation as separate subspecies. Belize's manatees, however, were found to have extremely low genetic diversity, raising questions about their long-term genetic viability.

The Central American country of Belize hosts the largest known breeding population of Antillean manatees and is touted by biologists for its potential to repopulate other parts of Central America where manatees are severely reduced, rare or absent.

"It turns out that the genetic diversity of Belize's manatees is lower than some of the classic examples of critically low diversity" said U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) conservation geneticist Margaret Hunter, Ph.D., who led a molecular DNA study of genetic diversity in the Antillean subspecies in Belize.

Belize's Antillean populations scored lower in genetic diversity than textbook examples of "bottlenecked" endangered species such as Wanglang giant pandas, the East African cheetah and an island koala population founded by only three koalas.

Endangered species need genetic diversity to weather threats to their survival, including random or rare shocks such as disease, hurricanes or habitat destruction. When a population drops to low numbers, the diversity of its gene pool also shrinks. Even after it rebounds to greater numbers, that population decline leaves a legacy of reduced genetic diversity known as a bottleneck. This renders the population more vulnerable to future shocks, explained Hunter.

The low genetic diversity in Antillean manatees is attributed, in part, to centuries of hunting that were only curtailed early in the 20th century. Once found throughout coastal regions of Central and South America, Antillean manatees are now rare or absent in parts of Central America where they used to be considered abundant. Today, even Belize only hosts about
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Contact: Rachel Pawlitz
rpawlitz@usgs.gov
352-264-3554
United States Geological Survey
Source:Eurekalert

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