Sea otters have low genetic diversity like other threatened species, biologists report | 5/29/2019 | Staff
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Sea otters have low genetic diversity, which could endanger their health as a species, a UCLA-led team of life scientists has discovered. The findings have implications for the conservation of rare and endangered species, in which low genetic diversity could increase the odds of extinction.

Genetic diversity is a measure of how many differences exist across the genome among individuals in a population. Large populations tend to have high genetic diversity (many differences among individuals), while small populations lose much of this diversity, resulting in individuals that are more genetically similar to one another.

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The sea otter's low level of genetic diversity is similar to endangered species, such as the cheetah and Tasmanian devil, said lead author Annabel Beichman, a UCLA graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology. She and her colleagues reconstructed the otter's evolutionary history and assessed its level of genetic diversity, history of changes in its population size, and levels of potentially harmful genetic variation.

The biologists found evidence of potentially harmful genetic variation and of mating between closely related ancestors in the sea otter genome—a pattern that is common in endangered species with small population sizes. The team analyzed the genome of Gidget, a female sea otter from the Monterey Bay Aquarium who died this year, as well as the genome of a South American giant otter as an evolutionary point of comparison. There are 13 species of otters, and the sea otter and giant otter live in starkly different environments—the giant otter in a warm freshwater environment and the sea otter in the frigid coastal waters of the North Pacific Ocean. This study is the first comprehensive genomic analysis of otters.

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"While low diversity isn't necessarily dangerous by itself, we also found elevated levels of potentially harmful variation within genes, possibly due to a history of population declines—which could...
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