Earlier in the year, I had made a comment that, as part of the natural evolution of this blog, I would try to change up the writing format every now and then to something a little more personal, emotional and potentially derivative from science. I must confess that this is one of those weeks, as it’s been an emotional rollercoaster for me. So, sorry in advance for the potentially self-oriented, reflective nature of this piece.
Contrastingly, sometimes we might also use genetic information to do the exact opposite. While so many species on Earth are at risk (or have already passed over the precipice) of extinction, some have gone rogue with our intervention. These are, of course, invasive species; pests that have been introduced into new environments and, by their prolific nature, start to throw out the balance of the ecosystem. Australians will be familiar with no shortage of relevant invasive species; the most notable of which is the cane toad, Rhinella marina. However, there are a plethora of invasive species which range from notably prolific (such as the cane toad) to the seemingly mundane (such as the blackbird): so how can we possibly deal with the number and propensity of pests?
Tools for invasive species management
There are a number of tools at our disposal for dealing with invasive species. These range from chemical controls (like pesticides), to biological controls and more recently to targeted genetic methods. Let’s take a quick foray into some of these different methods and their applications to pest control.
The potential secondary impact of biological controls, and the degree of unpredictability in how they will respond to a new environment (and how native species will also respond to their introduction) leads conservationists to develop new, more specific techniques. In similar ways, viral and bacterial-based controls have had limited success (although are still often proposed in conservation management, such as the planned carp herpesvirus release).
The better we understand invasive species and populations from a genetic perspective, the more informed our management efforts can be and the more likely we are to be able to adequately address the problem.
Managing invasive pest species
The impact of human settlement into new environments is exponentially beyond our direct influences. With our arrival, particularly in the last few hundred years, human migration has been an effective conduit for the spread of ecologically-disastrous species which undermine the health and stability of ecosystems around the globe. As such, it is our responsibility to Earth to attempt to address our problems: new genetic techniques is but one growing avenue by which we might be able to remove these invasive pests.
Note: For some clear, interesting presentations on the topic of de-extinction, and where some of the information for this post comes from, check out this list of TED talks.
The current conservation crisis
The stark reality of conservation in the modern era epitomises the crisis disciplinethat so often is used to describe it: species are disappearing at an unprecedented rate, and despite our best efforts it appears that they will continue to do so. The magnitude and complexity of our impacts on the environment effectively decimates entire ecosystems (and indeed, the entire biosphere). It is thus our responsibility as ‘custodians of the planet’ (although if I had a choice, I would have sacked us as CEOs of this whole business) to attempt to prevent further extinction of our planet’s biodiversity.
There’s one catch (well, a few really) with genetic rescue: namely, that one must have other populations to ‘outbreed’ with in order add genetic variation to the captive population. But what happens if we’re too late? What if there are no other populations to supplement with, or those other populations are also too genetically depauperate to use for genetic rescue?
Believe it or not, sometimes it’s not too late to save species, even after they have gone extinct. Which brings us from this (lengthy) introduction to this week’s topic: de-extinction. Yes, we’re literally (okay, maybe not) going to raise the dead.
Backbreeding: resurrection by hybridisation
You might wonder how (or even if!) this is possible. And to be frank, it’s extraordinarily difficult. However, it has to a degree been done before, in very specific circumstances. One scenario is based on breeding out a species back into existence: sometimes we refer to this as ‘backbreeding’.
This practice really only applies in a few select scenarios. One requirement for backbreeding to be possible is that hybridisation across species has to have occurred in the past, and generally to a substantial scale. This is important as it allows the genetic variation which defines one of those species to live on within the genome of its sister species even when the original ‘host’ species goes extinct. That might make absolutely zero sense as it stands, so let’s dive into this with a case study.
One of these species, Chelonoidis elephantopus, also known as the Floreana tortoise after their home island, went extinct over 150years ago, likely due to hunting and trade. However, before they all died, some individuals were transported to another island (ironically, likely by mariners) and did the dirty with another species of tortoise: C. becki. Because of this, some of the genetic material of the extinct Floreana tortoiseintrogressed into the genome of the still-living C. becki. In an effort to restore an iconic species, scientists from a number of institutions attempted to do what sounds like science-fiction: breed the extinct tortoise back to life.
When you saw the title for this post, you were probably expecting some Jurassic Parklevel ‘dinosaurs walking on Earth again’ information. I know I did when I first heard the term de-extinction. Unfortunately, contemporary de-extinction practices are not that far advanced just yet, although there have been some solid attempts. Experiments conducted using the genomic DNA from the nucleus of a dead animal, and cloning it within the egg of another living member of that species has effectively cloned an animal back from the dead. This method, however, is currently limited to animals that have died recently, as the DNA degrades beyond use over time.
One might expect that as genomic technologies improve, particularly methods facilitated by the genome-editing allowed from CRISPR/Cas-9 development, that we might one day be able to truly resurrect an extinct species. But this leads to very strongly debated topics of ethics and morality of de-extinction. If we can bring a species back from the dead, should we? What are the unexpected impacts of its revival? How will we prevent history from repeating itself, and the species simply going back extinct? In a rapidly changing world, how can we account for the differences in environment between when the species was alive and now?
There is no clear, simple answer to many of these questions. We are only scratching the surface of the possibility of de-extinction, and I expect that this debate will only accelerate with the research. One thing remains eternally true, though: it is still the distinct responsibility of humanity to prevent more extinctions in the future. Handling the growing climate change problem and the collapse of ecosystems remains a top priority for conservation science, and without a solution there will be no stable planet on which to de-extinct species.
One particular distinction we need to make early here is the difference between allele frequency and allele identity. In these analyses, often we are working with the same alleles (i.e. particular variants) across our populations, it’s just that each of these populations may possess these particular alleles in different frequencies. For example, one population may have an allele (let’s call it Allele A) very rarely – maybe only 10% of individuals in that population possess it – but in another population it’s very common and perhaps 80% of individuals have it. This is a different level of differentiation than comparing how different alleles mutate (as in the coalescent) or how these mutations accumulate over time (like in many phylogenetic-based analyses).
Fixed differences are sometimes used as a type of diagnostic trait for species. This means that each ‘species’ has genetic variants that are not shared at all with its closest relative species, and that these variants are so strongly under selection that there is no diversity at those loci. Often, fixed differences are considered a level above populations that differ by allelic frequency only as these alleles are considered ‘diagnostic’ for each species.
To distinguish between the two, we often use the overall frequency of alleles in a population as a basis for determining how likely two individuals share an allele by random chance. If alleles which are relatively rare in the overall population are shared by two individuals, we expect that this similarity is due to family structure rather than population history. By factoring this into our relatedness estimates we can get a more accurate overview of how likely two individuals are to be related using genetic information.
The wild world of allele frequency
Despite appearances, this is just a brief foray into the many applications of allele frequency data in evolution, ecology and conservation studies. There are a plethora of different programs and methods that can utilise this information to address a variety of scientific questions and refine our investigations.
Like many people, from a young age I was obsessed and interested in works of fantasy and science fiction. To feel transported to magical worlds of various imaginative creatures and diverse places. The luxury of being able to separate from the mundanity of reality is one many children (or nostalgic adults) will be able to relate to upon reflection. Worlds that appear far more creative and engaging than our own are intrinsically enticing to the human psyche and the escapism it allows is no doubt an integral part of growing up for many people (especially those who have also dealt or avoided dealing with mental health issues).
The intricate connection to the (super)natural world drove me to fall in love with the natural world. Although there might seem to be an intrinsic contrast between the two – the absence or presence of reality – the truth is that the world is a wondrous place if you observe it through an appropriate lens. Dragons are real, forms of life are astronomically varied and imaginative, and there we are surrounded by the unknown and potentially mythical. To see the awe and mystification on a child’s face when they see a strange or unique animal for the very first time bears remarkable parallels to the expression when we stare into the fantasy of Avatar or The Lord of the Rings.
It might seem common for ‘nerds’ (at least under the traditional definition of being obsessed with particular aspects of pop culture) to later become scientists of some form or another. And I think this is a true reflection: particularly, I think the innate personality traits that cause one to look at the world of fantasy with wonder and amazement also commonly elicits a similar response in terms of the natural world. It is hard to see an example where the CGI’d majesty of contemporary fantasy and sci-fi could outcompete the intrigue generated by real, wondrous plants and animals.
Seeing the divine in the mundane
Although we often require a more tangible, objective justification for research, the connection of people to the diversity of life (whether said diversity is fictitious or not) should be a significant driving factor in the perceived importance of conservation management. However, we are often degraded to somewhat trivial discussions: why should we care about (x) species? What do they do for us? Why are they important?
If we approach the real world and the organisms that inhabit it with truly the same wonder as we approach the fantastical, would we be more successful in preserving biodiversity? Could we reverse our horrific trend of letting species go extinct? Every species on Earth represents something unique: a new perspective, an evolutionary innovation, a lens through which to see the world and its history. Even the most ‘mundane’ of species represent something critical to functionality of ecosystems, and their lack of emphasis undermines their importance.
The biota of Earth are no different to the magical fabled beasts of science fiction and fantasy, and we’re watching it all burn away right in front of our eyes.
Managing and conserving threatened and endangered species in the wild is a difficult process. There are a large number of possible threats, outcomes, and it’s often not clear which of these (or how many of these) are at play at any one given time. Thankfully, there are also a large number of possible conservation tools that we might be able to use to protect, bolster and restore species at risk.
This can lead to a particular paradigm of conservation management: keeping everything separate and pure is ‘best practice’. The logic is that, as these different groups have evolved slightly differently from one another (although there is often a lot of grey area about ‘differently enough’), mixing these groups together is a bad idea. Particularly, this is relevant when we consider translocations (“it’s never acceptable to move an organism from one ESU into another”) and captive breeding programs (“it’s never acceptable to breed two organisms together from different ESUs”). So, why not? Why does it matter if they’re a little different?
Well, the classic reasoning is based on a concept called ‘outbreeding depression’. We’ve mentioned outbreeding depression before, and it is a key concept kept in mind when developing conservation programs. The simplest explanation for outbreeding depression is that evolution, through the strict process of natural selection, has pushed particularly populations to evolve certain genetic variants for a certain selective pressure. These can vary across populations, and it may mean that populations are locally adapted to a specific set of environmental conditions, with the specific set of genetic variants that best allow them to do this.
However, when you mix in the genetic variants that have evolved in a different population, by introducing a foreign individual and allowing them to breed, you essentially ‘tarnish’ the ‘pure’ gene pool of that population with what could be very bad (maladaptive) genes. The hybrid offspring of ‘native’ and this foreign individual will be less adaptive than their ‘pure native’ counterparts, and the overall adaptiveness of the population will decrease as those new variants spread (depending on the number introduced, and how negative those variants are).
You might be familiar with inbreeding depression, which is based on the loss of genetic diversity from having too similar individuals breeding together to produce very genetically ‘weak’ offspring through inbreeding. Outbreeding depression could be thought of as the opposite extreme; breeding too different individuals introduced too many ‘bad’ alleles into the population, diluting the ‘good’ alleles.
It might sound awfully purist to only preserve the local genetic diversity, and to assume that any new variants could be bad and tarnish the gene pool. And, surprisingly enough, this is an area of great debate within conservation genetics.
So, what’s the balance between the two? Is introducing new genetic variation a bad idea, and going to lead to outbreeding depression; or a good idea, and lead to genetic rescue? Of course, many of the details surrounding the translocation of new genetic material is important: how different are the populations? How different are the environments (i.e. natural selection) between them? How well will the target population take up new individuals and genes?
Overall, however, the more recent and well-supported conclusion is that fears regarding outbreeding depression are often strongly exaggerated. Bad alleles that have been introduced into a population can be rapidlypurged by natural selection, and the likelihood of a strongly maladaptive allele spreading throughout the population is unlikely. Secondly, given the lack of genetic diversity in the target population, most that need the genetic rescue are so badly maladaptive as it is (due to genetic drift and lack of available adaptive alleles) that introducing new variants is unlikely to make the situation much worse.
That said, outbreeding depression is not an entirely trivial concept and there are always limitations in genetic rescue procedures. For example, it would be considered a bad idea to mix two different species together and make hybrids, since the difference between two species, compared to two populations, can be a lot stronger and not necessarily a very ‘natural’ process (whereas populations can mix and disjoin relatively regularly).
The reality of conservation management
Conservation science is, at its core, a crisis discipline. It exists solely as an emergency response to the rapid extinction of species and loss of biodiversity across the globe. The time spent trying to evaluate the risk of outbreeding depression – instead of immediately developing genetic rescue programs – can cause species to tick over to the afterlife before we get a clear answer. Although careful consideration and analysis is a requirement of any good conservation program, preventing action due to almost paranoid fear is not a luxury endangered species can afford.
Meaning: Cinis: from [ash] in Latin; descendens from [descends] in Latin.
Translation: descending from the ash; describes hunting behaviour in ash mountains of Vvardenfell.
Kingdom Animalia; Phylum Chordata; Class Aves; Subclass Archaeornithes; Family Vvardidae; GenusCinis; Speciesdescendens
Least Concern [circa 3E 427]
Threatened [circa 4E 433]
Once widespread throughout the north eastern region of Tamriel, occupying regions from the island of Vvardenfell to mainland Morrowind and Solstheim. Despite their name, the cliff racer is found across nearly all geographic regions of Vvardenfell, although the species is found in greatest densities in the rocky interior region of Stonefalls.
Following a purge of the species as part of pest control management, the cliff racer was effectively exterminated from parts of its range, including local extinction on the island of Solstheim. Since the cull the cliff racer is much less abundant throughout its range although still distributed throughout much of Vvardenfell and mainland Morrowind.
Although, much as the name suggests, the cliff racer prefers rocky outcroppings and mountainous regions in which it can build its nest, the species is frequently seen in lowland swamp and plains regions of Morrowind.
Behaviour and ecology
The cliff racer is a highly aggressive ambush predator, using height and range to descend on unsuspecting victims and lashing at them with its long, sharp tail. Although preferring to predate on small rodents and insects (such as kwama), cliff racers have been known to attack much larger beasts such as agouti and guar if provoked or desperate. The highly territorial nature of cliff racer means that they often attack travellers, even if they pose no immediate threat or have done nothing to provoke the animal.
Despite the territoriality of cliff racers, large flocks of them can often be found in the higher altitude regions of Vvardenfell, perhaps facilitated by an abundance of food (reducing competition) or communal breeding grounds. Attempts by researchers to study these aggregations have been limited due to constant attacks and damage to equipment by the flock.
Following the control measures implemented, the population size of these populations of cliff racers declined severely; however, given the survival of the majority of the population it does not appear this bottleneck has severely impacted the longevity of the species. The extirpation of the Solstheim population of cliff racers likely removed a unique ESU from the species, given the relative isolation of the island. Whether the island will be recolonised in time by Vvardenfell cliff racers is unknown, although the presence of any cliff racers back onto Solstheim would likely be met with strong opposition from the local peoples.
The broad wings, dorsal sail and long tail allow the cliff racer to travel large distances in the air, serving them well in hunting behaviour. The drawback of this is that, if hunting during the middle hours of the day, the cliff racer leaves an imposing shadow on the ground and silhouette in the sky, often alerting aware prey to their presence. That said, the speed of descent and disorienting cry of the animal often startles prey long enough for the cliff racer to attack.
The plumes of the cliff racer are a well-sought-after commodity by local peoples, used in the creation of garments and household items. Whether these plumes serve any adaptive purpose (such as sexual selection through mate signalling) is unknown, given the difficulties with studying wild cliff racer behaviour.
Although suffering from a strong population bottleneck after the purge, the cliff racer is still relatively abundant across much of its range and maintains somewhat stable size. Management and population control of the cliff racer is necessary across the full distribution of the species to prevent strong recovery and maintain public safety and ecosystem balance. Breeding or rescuing cliff racers is strictly forbidden and the species has been widely declared as ‘native pest’, despite the somewhat oxymoron nature of the phrase.
Nugs are non-confrontational omnivorous species, preferring to hide and delve in the dark underground systems below the world of Thedas. Thus, nugs will typically avoid contact with people or predators by hiding in various crevices, using their pale skin to blend in with the surrounding rock faces. Reports of nugs in the wild demonstrate that nugs are remarkably inefficient at predator avoidance, despite their physiology; however, nug populations do not appear to suffer dramatically with predator presence, suggesting that either predators are too few to significantly impact population size or that alternative behaviours might allow them to rapidly bounce back from natural declines.
Given the lack of consistent light within their habitat, nugs are effectively blind, retaining only limited eyesight required for moving around above the surface. Nugs feed on a large variety of food sources, preferring insects but resorting to mineral deposits if available food resources are depleted. Their generalist diet may be one physiological trait that has allowed the nug to become some widespread and abundant historically.
Although the nug is a widespread and abundant species, they are heavily reliant on the connections of the Deep Roads to maintain connectivity and gene flow. With the gradual declination of Dwarven abundance and the loss of entire regions of the underground civilisation, it is likely that many areas of the nug distribution have become isolated and suffering from varying levels of inbreeding depression. Given the lack of access to these populations, whether some have collapsed since their isolation is unknown and potentially isolated populations may have even speciated if local environments have changed significantly.
Nugs are highly adapted to low-light, subterranean conditions, and show many phenotypic traits related to this kind of environment. The reduction of eyesight capability is considered a regression of unusable traits in underground habitats; instead, nugs show a highly developed and specialised nasal system. The high sensitivity of the nasal cavity makes them successful forages in the deep caverns of the underworld, and the elongated maw of the nug allows them to dig into buried food sources with ease. One of the more noticeable (and often disconcerting) traits of the nug is their human-like hands; the development of individual digits similar to fingers allows the nug to grip and manipulate rocky surfaces with surprising ease.
Re-establishment of habitat corridors through the clearing and revival of the Deep Roads is critical for both reconnecting isolated populations of nugs and restoring natural gene flow, but also allowing access to remote populations for further studies. A combination of active removal of resident Darkspawn and population genetics analysis to accurately assess the conservation status of the species. That said, given the commercial value of the nug as a food source for many societies, establishing consistent sustainable farming practices may serve to both boost the nug populations and also provide an industry for many people.
This is Part 1 of a four part miniseries on the process of speciation; how we get new species, how we can see this in action, and the end results of the process. This week, we’ll start with a seemingly obvious question: what is a species?
The definition of a ‘species’
‘Species’ are a human definition of the diversity of life. When we talk about the diversity of life, and the myriad of creatures and plants on Earth, we often talk about species diversity. This might seem glaringly obvious, but there’s one key issue: what is a species, anyway? While we might like to think of them as discrete and obvious groups (a dog is definitely not the same species as a cat, for example), the concept of a singular “species” is actually the result of human categorisation.
In reality, the diversity of life is spread across a huge spectrum of differentiation: from things which are closely related but still different to us (like chimps), to more different again (other mammals), to hardly relatable at all (bacteria and plants). So, what is the cut-off for calling something a species, and not a different genus, family, or kingdom? Or alternatively, at what point do we call a specific sub-group of a species as a sub-species, or another species entirely?
This might seem like a simple question: we look at two things, and they look different, so they must be different species, right? Well, of course, nature is never simple, and the line between “different” and “not different” is very blurry. Here’s an example: consider that you knew nothing about the history, behaviour or genetics of dogs. If you simply looked at all the different breeds of dogs on Earth, you might suggest that there are hundreds of species of domestic dogs. That seems a little excessive though, right? In fact, the domestic dog, Eurasian wolf, and the Australian dingo are all the same species (but different subspecies, along with about 38 others…but that’s another issue altogether).
For example, a horse and zebra can breed to produce a zorse, however zorse are fundamentally infertile (due to the different number of chromosomes between a horse and a zebra) and thus a horse is a different species to a zebra. However, a German Shepherd and a chihuahua can breed and make a hybrid mutt, so they are the same species.
To try and account for the issues with the BSC, taxonomists try to push for the usage of “integrative taxonomy”. This means that species should be defined by multiple different agreeing concepts, such as reproductive isolation, genetic differentiation, behavioural differences, and/or ecological traits. The more traits that can separate the two, the greater support there is for the species to be separated: if they disagree, then more information is needed to determine exactly whether or not that should be called different species. Debates about taxonomy are ongoing and are likely going to be relevant for years to come, but form critical components of understanding biodiversity, patterns of evolution, and creating effective conservation legislation to protect endangered or threatened species (for whichever groups we decide are species).
As regular readers of The G-CAT are likely aware, my first ever scientific paper was published this week. The paper is largely the results of my Honours research (with some extra analysis tacked on) on the phylogenomics (the same as phylogenetics, but with genomic data) and biogeographic history of a group of small, endemic freshwater fishes known as the pygmy perch. There are a number of different messages in the paper related to biogeography, taxonomy and conservation, and I am really quite proud of the work.
To my honest surprise, the paper has received a decentamount of media attention following its release. Nearly all of these have focused on the biogeographic results and interpretations of the paper, which is arguably the largest component of the paper. In these media releases, the articles are often opened with “…despite the odds, new research has shown how a tiny fish managed to find its way across the arid Australian continent – more than once.” So how did they manage it? These are tiny fish, and there’s a very large desert area right in the middle of Australia, so how did they make it all the way across? And more than once?!
The Great (southern) Southern Land
To understand the results, we first have to take a look at the context for the research question. There are seven officially named species of pygmy perches (‘named’ is an important characteristic here…but we’ll go into the details of that in another post), which are found in the temperate parts of Australia. Of these, three are found with southwest Western Australia, in Australia’s only globally recognised biodiversity hotspot, and the remaining four are found throughout eastern Australia (ranging from eastern South Australia to Tasmania and up to lower Queensland). These two regions are separated by arid desert regions, including the large expanse of the Nullarbor Plain.
As one might expect, the formation of the Nullarbor Plain was a huge barrier for many species, especially those that depend on regular accessible water for survival. In many species of both plants and animals, we see in their phylogenetic history a clear separation of eastern and western groups around this time; once widely distributed species become fragmented by the plain and diverged from one another. We would most certainly expect this to be true of pygmy perch.
This is where the real difference between everything else and pygmy perch happens. For most species, we see only one east and west split in their phylogenetic tree, associated with the Nullarbor Plain; before that, their ancestors were likely distributed across the entire southern continent and were one continuous unit.
Not for pygmy perch, though. Our phylogenetic patterns show that there were multiple splits between eastern and western ancestral pygmy perch. We can see this visually within the phylogenetic tree; some western species of pygmy perches are more closely related, from an evolutionary perspective, to eastern species of pygmy perches than they are to other western species. This could imply a couple different things; either some species came about by migration from east to west (or vice versa), and that this happened at least twice, or that two different ancestral pygmy perches were distributed across all of southern Australia and each split east-west at some point in time. These two hypotheses are called “multiple invasion” and “geographic paralogy”, respectively.
So, which is it? We delved deeper into this using a type of analysis called ‘ancestral clade reconstruction’. This tries to guess the likely distributions of species ancestors using different models and statistical analysis. Our results found that the earliest east-west split was due to the fragmentation of a widespread ancestor ~20 million years ago, and a migration event facilitated by changing waterways from the Nullarbor Plain pushing some eastern pygmy perches to the west to form the second group of western species. We argue for more than one migration across Australia since the initial ancestor of pygmy perches must have expanded from some point (either east or west) to encompass the entirety of southern Australia.
So why do we see this for pygmy perch and no other species? Well, that’s the real mystery; out of all of the aquatic species found in southeast and southwest Australia, pygmy perch are one of the worst at migrating. They’re very picky about habitat, small, and don’t often migrate far unless pushed (by, say, a flood). It is possible that unrecorded extinct species of pygmy perch might help to clarify this a little, but the chances of finding a preserved fish fossil (let alone for a fish less than 8cm in size!) is extremely unlikely. We can really only theorise about how they managed to migrate.
What does this mean for pygmy perches?
Nearly all species of pygmy perch are threatened or worse in the conservation legislation; there have been many conservation efforts to try and save the worst-off species from extinction. Pygmy perches provide a unique insight to the history of the Australian climate and may be a key in unlocking some of the mysteries of what our land was like so long ago. Every species is important for conservation and even those small, hard-to-notice creatures that we might forget about play a role in our environmental history.