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Research shows habitat loss is impacting genetic diversity of species

Habitat loss and the climate crisis is having a serious impact on biodiversity, as new research shows we have already lost one-tenth of the word’s genetic diversity amongst animals.

Led by the Carnegie Institution for Science, the research suggests it may already be too late to reach the United Nation’s target to protect 90% of genetic diversity of every species by 2030.

Human activity has led to the extinction of several hundred species of animals and plants, shrinking their ecosystems and geographic range.

When animals lose this geographic range, it diminishes population size and prevents populations of the same species form interacting with each other, affecting their ability to adapt to the climate crisis.

two rhinoceros on brown grass field during daytime

Moises Exposito-Alonso, Staff Associate at Carnegie and Assistant Professor at Stanford University, who led the study, said: ‘When you take away or fundamentally alter swaths of a species’ habitat, you restrict the genetic richness available to help those plants and animals adapt to shifting conditions.’

Without a diverse pool of natural genetic mutations, species will be limited in their ability to survive changes to their geographic range, which hasn’t always been considered.

Mutations in genetic code can positively or negatively affect an organism’s chance of survival and ability to reproduce. If they do survive, they’re able to pass down this positive trait to future offspring.

‘As a result, the greater the pool of mutations upon which a species is able to draw, the greater the chances of stumbling upon that lucky blend that will help a species thrive despite the pressures created by habitat loss, as well as shifting temperature and precipitation patterns,’ Exposito-Alonso added.

Exposito-Alonso, along with his team, are now developing a genetic framework to evaluate the mutations available to a specie sin a given area.

They used genomic data from 10,000 organisms across 20 different species and found the world’s genetic diversity loss is worse than previously thought. Genetic diversity is much slower to recover than it is to lose, to the extent researchers think its effectively irreversible.  

‘The mathematical tool that we tested in 20 species could be expanded to make approximate conservation genetics projections for additional species, even if we don’t know their genomes,’ Exposito-Alonso concluded. ‘I think our findings could be used to evaluate and track the new global sustainability targets, but there is still much uncertainty. We need to do a better job in monitoring populations of species and developing more genetic tools.’

Photo by Andrew Liu

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