Captive breeding of endangered snow leopards (Panthera uncia) has relied since 1976 on an international studbook that matches animals at zoos around the world for purposes of keeping the big cats from becoming too inbred.
Breeding via studbook, however, is a slow process that does not offer many benefits to an endangered species with small populations, such as the snow leopard. Now a team from the College of Veterinary Medicine at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Calif., hopes to come up with an alternative breeding program that will rely on DNA instead of family trees.
Principal investigators Margaret Barr, Kristopher Irizarry and Janis Joslin have received a $100,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to develop a strategy for using genetic analysis to maximize the breeding of snow leopards to enhance species diversity and robustness.
The existing snow leopard studbook is "slow and cumbersome," Barr says. "It relies on demographic information and traditional observational genetics in deciding on which animals might be assets to the breeding program. The individual animals are bred and observed to see if the offspring survive, thrive and successfully reproduce free of diseases of concern. Zoos need a faster way to determine that they are correctly identifying the best individual animals for breeding for the long-term success of the program."
According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, worldwide populations for the cats are estimated at 4,000 to 6,000 animals. About 550 live in captivity in zoos. The species's limited genetic range has weakened the animals' immune systems and left them susceptible to a variety of diseases, such as pneumonia, enteritis from salmonella, and two different papillomaviruses, "which cause them to develop squamous cell carcinomas on their skin and in their mouths," Barr says. The big cats also have problems similar to those in overbred domesticated animals, like hip dysplasia and colobomas (eye lesions).
As part of its research, the team will collect and store DNA samples from up to 100 snow leopards from North American captive populations. "Some of these samples will be used to generate a sequence of the snow leopard genome and to begin to identify genes that might play a role in the snow leopard's increased susceptibility to some diseases," Barr says.
Before that, the team plans to organize a workshop for several groups interested in snow leopard conservation, including "zoo curators and veterinarians involved in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Snow Leopard Species Survival Plan (SSP); key members of some SSPs for other endangered animals; geneticists and experts in genomics; immunologists; and reproductive physiologists," Barr says. The team will use the workshop to come up with a "comprehensive strategy for applying functional genomics to animal conservation issues."
The team hopes its results will also be applicable to other endangered species. "There are many other species of endangered cats such as the cheetah, Pallas's cats, sand cats and Asiatic lions that have medical problems that could be evaluated using this same process, and breeding programs could be managed using the approach developed in this research," Barr says.
The team's yearlong project begins this month.
Image: Snow leopard, via Wikipedia