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Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics

Two young male tigers at play in India's Kanha National Park. CCEG aids tiger conservation by training and assisting in non-invasive monitoring efforts. Photo credit: Rob Fleischer

CCEG scientists are at the forefront of the emerging fields of evolutionary and conservation genetics. They were the first to analyze and document the decrease in survival and reproductive success caused by inbreeding in zoo animals, and took the lead in developing solutions such as software for genetic management. They were among the first to develop methods of non-invasive genotyping to identify species and individuals, and to estimate kinship and population sizes of animals in natural populations. They developed novel ancient DNA protocols and were pioneers in applying these methods to issues of conservation importance, as well as to unraveling the evolutionary histories of extinct and endangered species. And they have been leaders in applying genetic methods to diagnose and study emerging pathogens responsible for sometimes devastating wildlife diseases.

CCEG works to understand and conserve biodiversity through genetic research. It applies genetic theory and methods creatively to gain knowledge about the evolutionary and life histories of animals, to understand the importance of genetic variation to their survival, and to identify the methods needed to sustain them in captivity and the wild.

CCEG research projects involve a broad methodological repertoire, often including field studies, DNA laboratory, theoretical and genetic management analyses. Many CCEG research studies are collaborative with other scientists at the National Zoo, National Museum of Natural History, elsewhere at the Smithsonian, and with other zoo and academic researchers. CCEG provides important service to the National Zoo and conservation community by developing genetic management plans for animals in zoos around the world, providing advice to agencies and non-governmental organizations, and applying molecular genetic methods to document conservation management units and identify individual gender, kin relationships, and pathogens. CCEG scientists also participate in scientific training and outreach; teaching students and the public about conservation biology and how genetic theory and methods contribute to its ends.

Research Programs

Genetic Management of Wild and Captive Populations

Golden Lion Tamarin; Clyde Nishimura

Genetic deterioration due to inbreeding and loss of genetic diversity is a very real problem that increases the risk of extinction in both wild and zoo populations. CCEG scientists have long been leaders in developing the science and tools for genetic management of endangered species Learn more.

Non-invasive DNA Techniques

African Elephant; Marissa Alhering

To conserve endangered species effectively, scientists and managers need basic information  such as where the animals live  and how many of them there are. However, many endangered species are hard to find and even harder to count because they are rare and often secretive. CCEG has developed genetic methods for obtaining reliable information on many elusive endangered species by analyzing DNA extracted from feces, hair, and other items shed in the wild. Learn more.

Ancient DNA

Nukupuu; Rob Fleischer

It is often difficult or impossible to obtain materials suitable for traditional DNA analysis from endangered and extinct species. In this case, CCEG’s genetics laboratory has optimized a set of careful, controlled protocols to isolate and analyze DNA from older materials including museum specimens, mineralized bones (bones that aren’t completely fossilized), and archaeological artifacts. Learn more.

Systematics and Definition of Conservation Units

Indian Wolf; Yadendradev Jhala

Conservation strategies require knowing the taxonomic units that are to be preserved and how unique they are. Is a population a distinct subspecies or species? How much gene flow is there between two geographically isolated populations? How different are populations or species and which one’s extinction would most impact genetic diversity? DNA analyses can be extremely useful for answering these types of questions. Learn more.

Disease Diagnosis and Dynamics

Hawaiian avian malaria; Rob Fleischer

Emerging diseases can be devastating to wildlife, both in nature and in zoos, and some of these epizootic (epidemic) diseases have also become major health problems for humans. CCEG studies the effects of pathogenic organisms on wildlife, and develops and applies molecular methods for diagnosing diseases and determining genetic variation in a wide range of pathogen types. Learn more.

Genetic Applications to Understanding Animal Behavior and Ecology

Common loon

Studies of animal behavior and ecology can benefit from the use of genetic methods. Scientists can use genetic data to estimate the level of kinship of individuals, which can be used to help explain the behaviors of individuals in families and expanded social groups. CCEG has participated in numerous collaborative studies of behavior with NZP and other scientists. Learn more.