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Image of the Week: Endangered Mountain Gorilla

10 Apr, 2015
Nyanjura near its mother. Image courtesy of Gorilla Doctors.

Nyanjura near its mother. Image courtesy of Gorilla Doctors.

Our image of the week this week is of a young gorilla called Nyanjura, part of a small population of mountain gorillas from the Virunga volcanic mountain range in Africa. In 1981 the population size had been drastically reduced to around 253 as a result of hunting and the destruction of their habitat.

There were concerns that such a small group would have a limited gene-pool, and thus be vulnerable to disease or changes in the environment, but the latest research shows that inbreeding has, in some ways, been genetically beneficial to the group.

Despite mountain gorillas being one of the most intensively studied species in the wild, this is the first time an in-depth, whole-genome analysis of mountain gorillas has been possible.

The research was conducted by scientists from a range of centres, including the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, home to Dr Chris Tyler-Smith, one of the authors of the study. “Three years on from sequencing the gorilla reference genome, we can now compare the genomes of all gorilla populations, including the critically endangered mountain gorilla, and begin to understand their similarities and differences, and the genetic impact of inbreeding” he says.

Their research found fewer harmful loss-of-function gene variants in the small mountain gorilla population than in larger western gorilla populations. These variants stop genes from working and can cause serious, often fatal, health conditions.

“This new understanding of genetic diversity and demographic history among gorilla populations provides us with valuable insight into how apes and humans, their closely related cousins, adapt genetically to living in small populations,” says Dr Aylwyn Scally, corresponding author from the Department of Genetics at the University of Cambridge. “In these data we can observe the process by which genomes are purged of severely deleterious mutations by a small population size.”

Since the early 1980s, the Virunga population has grown to approximately 480, thanks to conservation efforts led by the Rwanda Development Board and Gorilla Doctors, but they are still critically endangered.

It is hoped that the genome-wide map of genetic differences between populations will enable scientists to identify the origins of gorillas that have been illegally captured or killed. This will mean that more gorillas can be returned to the wild and will make it easier to bring prosecutions against those who poach gorillas for souvenirs and bush meat.

You can read the full paper: Mountain gorilla genomes reveal the impact of long-term population decline and inbreeding, in the latest issue of Science. You can find out more about the work of the Gorilla Doctors on their website.

Image credit: Gorilla Doctors, used with permission.

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