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article imageUnderstanding lions using DNA from museum specimens

By Clay Walker     Apr 3, 2014 in Science
Genetic analysis aids in not only painting a picture of the past, but preserving the future. Recent study unveils the history of modern lions using DNA garnered from natural history museums.
For a quick review on scientific classification please see Species vs Subspecies
DNA analysis helps clarify and separate the different subspecies of the lion. A study published on BMS Evolutionary Biology reveals the ancestry of Panthera leo the lone surviving lion species. "Understanding the demographic history of a population is critical to conservation and to our broader understanding of evolutionary processes" according to the journal article itself. As big cats, lions have been hunted extensively throughout written history, and even recently certain populations have declined such as the the West African Lion subspecies (Panthera leo senegalensis). DNA clarification helps to separate lions based on their genes. This helps to protect the gene pool of this magnificent mammal, allowing ecologists to better protect the specie's diversity.
Another hindrance to the study of the modern lion's family tree is the absence of a fossil record. "Estimates of demographic history are increasingly reliant on genetic data, particularly in many tropical regions where the mammalian fossil record is constrained by poor preservation of bone" (Barnett et al.) The tropical environment itself is not conducive to preservation, leaving an incomplete fossil record. Researches looked toward modern techniques to analyze mitochondrial DNA from specimens of known origin held in museums. Bone and tissue samples were taken from extinct subspecies such as the Barbary lion (Panthera leo leo) and Iranian lion (P. l. persica) as well as modern African and Asiatic Lions.
Revealing the maternal demographic history of Panthera leo using ancient DNA and a spatially explicit genealogical analysis takes an analytical view at the lions genealogy. While there are 8 recognized subspecies of the modern lion, genetics of each clade remains unclear. Looking at extinct subspecies such as the Barbary Lion and Iranian Lion help us to not only better understand the current lion populations, but also to better appreciate and protect specific sub-populations, allowing for educated conservation of this vulnerable species (IUCN). The study makes clear arguments for recognition of specific regional populations to be worthy of independent conservation. Dr. Barnett states in an interview with BBC: "I was most surprised by the incredibly close relationship between the extinct Barbary lion from North Africa and the extant Asian lion from India."
While it is too late to save the Barbary lion, perhaps the largest of the lion subspecies, there is still time to protect the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica), a lion subspecies that exists as a single isolated population within Gir Forest National Park, India. Protecting endangered subspecies like the Asiatic lion helps insure the preservation of the species as a whole, insuring the King of the Jungle can rule for generations to come.
Male Asiatic Lion in Gir National Forest
Male Asiatic Lion in Gir National Forest
Sumeet Moghe
More about Lion, lion genetics, lion subspecies, Lion DNA, american lion
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