Inbreeding helps gorillas survive: Study

2015-04-09 22:06

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Miami - Inbreeding is generally considered dangerous, but for endangered mountain gorillas in central Africa the practice has helped them survive by reducing harmful genetic mutations, researchers said on Thursday.

Habitat destruction and hunting have seriously cut down on the population of gorillas in the mountains of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. By 1981 there were just 253 left.

"Mountain gorillas are among the most intensively studied primates in the wild, but this is the first in-depth, whole-genome analysis," Chris Tyler-Smith, co-author from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, said in the study appearing in the US journal Science.

"Three years on from sequencing the gorilla reference genome, we can now compare the genomes of all gorilla populations, including the critically endangered mountain gorilla, and begin to understand their similarities and differences, and the genetic impact of inbreeding."

Conservation efforts have helped the population rebound to about 480 at present.

By studying gorilla blood samples, researchers found that mountain gorillas and their neighbours, the eastern lowland gorillas, "were two to three times less genetically diverse than gorillas from larger groups in western regions of central Africa", said the findings.

Despite these challenges, researchers found fewer potentially harmful genetic mutations in the mountain gorillas than in other kinds.

"While comparable levels of inbreeding contributed to the extinction of our relatives the Neanderthals, mountain gorillas may be more resilient," study author Yali Xue from the Sanger Institute said.

"There is no reason why they should not flourish for thousands of years to come."

Read more on:    animals  |  research

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