Dolphin conservation – Why does it matter?
Like so many species throughout the world, dolphins are impacted by encroaching human activities and diminished habitat. When this leads to a decline in population size, there is a loss in genetic diversity for individuals and for the population overall. This matters because there is a direct, positive relationship between genetic diversity and the health of the individual. This is on top of concerns about sustaining smaller populations, which become susceptible to extinction just through random changes in the size of a population. The impact of diminished health through lost individual genetic diversity exacerbates this problem at the population level, leader to local extinctions more quickly.
Dolphins and Disease
Although dolphins live in a very different environment than we do, they are susceptible to infectious diseases just like we are. They also share the same type of natural mechanisms that protects them against environmental pathogens. These mechanisms are compromised by low genetic diversity, a consequence of diminished and declining population size. Our particular study species is known to be susceptible to major epidemics that wipe out large numbers all at once, and this has happened repeatedly in recent time in the Mediterranean Sea, where our work is based.
How will our project help?
It was possible to count individual parasites from the lungs and stomachs of 132 beach-cast striped dolphins. In particular, some dolphins were heavily infested with lungworm, a nematode that can block airways and create lesions associated with disease. These detailed parasite counts of organisms known to impact on dolphin health provide an unprecedented level of resolution to test the relationship between pathogen load and genetic diversity across the dolphin genome. A better understanding of this relationship will promote more effective conservation strategies through the more precise quantification of the risks associated with population decline (and the consequences of loss of diversity).
A genome sampling method will be used to identify 5,000-10,000 variable genetic markers in every dolphin that has been assessed for parasite load (about half males and females). This will permit a precise assessment of the relationship between diversity and infection rate at multiple hierarchical genomic levels, and a chance to test early indications that the relationship may differ between males and females. Information learned will promote conservation of natural populations worldwide.
Budget – what goes where
The funds will help us to assess high-throughput genome-wide sequences of 132 striped dolphin individuals. Lab routines will be:
a) DNA extraction
b) Genome-libraries preparations
c) Quality controls
d) Next Generation Sequencing
This work will be done using the fully- equipped, state- of- the- art facilities in the Department of Biological and Biomedical Sciences at Durham University. The funds are requested for DNA extraction, library construction, Quality control and next generation sequencing.
The first phase of the project will use high genome sequencing of 132 striped dolphins, favoring different loads of the parasite lungworm Skrjabinalius guevarai. It is well-known that this parasite is associated with the respiratory disease, bronchopneumonia as well as other diseases that affect the respiratory muscles.
Lab routines will be genome-libraries preparations and quantifications using the full equipped state of the art facilities in the Department of Biological and Biomedical Sciences at Durham University. Bio-informatics analyses will be conducted with highly sophisticated tools in accordance with Molecular Ecology Group’s knowledge on dolphin’s ecology and biology.
Moreover, we will test that relationships may differ with respect to species sex. However, if the funding target is exceeded, it will be possible to use deeper sequencing to identify even more relationships with parasite loads. All the results will be available on-line to the public, so everyone who is interested will be able to explore and learn more.
Team research interests
Our focus is on evolutionary process and genetic structure in natural populations. We use high-resolution genome sequencing to better understand the mechanisms that underlie the evolution of population structure, population dynamics, local adaptation and the relationship between genetic diversity and fitness in order to promote more effective conservation strategies.
Meet the Researchers
Georgios A. Gkafas (PhD)
I am a molecular ecologist who studies genetic diversity of natural populations in the context of population structure, fitness correlations and phylogenetics. I use molecular approaches, employing the methods of evolutionary biology as tools to better understanding the origin and evolution of biodiversity within and among populations, as well as the role of individual behaviour in these processes. My research interests focus on population dynamics on marine organism with an emphasis on dolphin species.
Prof Rus A. Hoelzel
Prof. Hoelzel is an evolutionary biologist and molecular ecologist with 35 years experience, including several decades working with marine mammal populations. He has published on these subjects extensively, leads the Molecular Ecology Group at Durham University, and supervised the initial work on this project. He has considerable experience with next generation sequencing methods, and a large research group actively engaged in related projects.
Prof Juan Antonio Raga
Prof. Raga is director of the Science Park at the University of Valencia and author of over 200 scientific publications. He has studied the impact of pathogens on marine species, and especially on marine mammals for 35 years. He is a recognised world expert on this subject, and has been essential towards the facilitation of this study.
By Guiseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara – Tethys Research Institute (Milano, Italy), President
The proposed study to investigate the relationship between pathogen load and diversity across the genome of striped dolphins found in the Mediterranean Sea is important and timely. I think experimenting with novel research techniques, such as those proposed here, is highly recommendable. In addition, the projects seems also quite cost-effective. Once developed on striped dolphins, I would see the application of this method to also investigate vulnerabilities of other Mediterranean marine mammals as being highly desirable and urgent.
By Peter G.H. Evans – Sea Watch Foundation, Director
Genetic diversity is fundamental for the survival of any animal species. New high-resolution genetic techniques now provide the opportunity to examine this in detail in relation to health. Using an example from the world of dolphins in one of the most highly pressured environments, that of the Mediterranean, this project from a world-class genetics laboratory aims to apply these methods to advance our knowledge in a manner that has implications for all animal species including mankind.
Find out more about the Sea Watch Foundation at: http://www.seawatchfoundation.org.uk/
To thank you for your support!
If you would like to donate to this project and not receive a perk, pledge by selecting the amount you would like to give then please email firstname.lastname@example.org with subject heading “no perk”. We’ll figure out the rest!
Report: Help us better understand genetic diversity and disease in dolphins and we will send you an illustrated report of the findings when the research has been completed
Thank you Postcard: Receive a personal thank-you postcard from our team at Durham University that is based on the artwork print perk (see below).
Online webinar: This will be a 20-30 minute session where you can ask me questions about my research and I will explain the findings so far. It will be particularly valuable for those with an interest in conservation.
Early bird Sci-T: Receive a T-shirt exclusive to backers of this project printed on organic cotton illustrating the basis of the research in a nice design.
Backers Sci-T: Receive a T-shirt exclusive to backers of this project printed on organic cotton illustrating the basis of the research in a nice design.
Backers Sci-Art: Receive a special backers print illustrating the basis of the research in a nice design. This will be more detailed than the T-shirt design and will be designed when the project reaches its goal. It will be A2 sized and printed on 250 gram paper. Estimated delivery Dec 2016.
Signed Backers Sci-Art: Receive a special backers print illustrating the basis of the research in a nice design. This will be more detailed than the T-shirt design and will be designed when the project reaches its goal. It will be A2 sized and printed on 250 gram paper and will be signed by the scientist. Estimated delivery Dec 2016.
Lunch with the team: Come and join us for lunch at the botanical gardens in the historic city of Durham, we will talk you through our research mission and let you know how the experiment is going.
Behind the scenes tour: Come and visit the lab for the day and I’ll show you some of the techniques I use and explain in person more about my research.
Fund the project!
I hope you will be able to help and support our efforts to understand how genetic diversity is connected with the pathogenesis of disease in dolphin pods. The more knowledge we have of how to protect this species from disease, the better our chances are of protecting the species as well as other species , particularly when numbers become critically low.
Menno de Jong