Aug 23

Is the Iberian lynx doomed by its genetics? Probably not, at least according to new research published in the journal Molecular Ecology.

Photo of Iberian lynx resting

Iberian lynx resting. Only 250 of these beautiful cats remain in the wild.

One of the world’s most critically endangered cats

Only around 250 Iberian lynx are thought to exist in the wild, making this charismatic feline one of the world’s most critically endangered cats. However, despite the long-held belief that this species may be ‘doomed’ by its tiny population size, a new study suggests otherwise.

When a species has a very small population size, it puts it at risk of having low genetic diversity. Genetic diversity refers to the total variety of genes within a particular species, and the genes affect how the species looks and behaves. Species with greater genetic diversity usually have a better chance of long-term survival, as the variation within the species means that they are able to better adapt to changing environments.

Very small populations mean that individuals have less choice with whom they are able to breed. This often leads to inbreeding, which occurs when closely related individuals mate. An inbred population usually has less genetic variability and this is generally disadvantageous for its long-term survival and success.

Photo of Iberian lynx

The Iberian lynx is the world's most threatened species of cat.

50,000 years of genetic uniformity

In the case of the Iberian lynx, new research suggests that this species has actually had very little genetic diversity for the last 50,000 years, and that this has not hampered its long-term survival.

Looking at several different lynx, a team from Spain, the UK and Sweden studied the most variable region of the lynx genome, the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). As expected, there was very little genetic variation between individuals.

However, the surprise came when they compared the mtDNA of today’s lynx to the mtDNA of lynx fossils from the last 50,000 years.

Remarkably, the results showed that there has been hardly any variation in the genetic make-up of the Iberian lynx for thousands of years.

Professor Mark Thomas, an author of the paper from University College London, said, “This is the first species, as far as I am aware, where such low diversity has been seen recently and over such a long period of time.”

Usually, species that have very low genetic diversity today are found to have had quite high genetic diversity thousands of years ago. Such species have usually gone through what is known as a ‘genetic bottleneck’, where an event at some point in their evolutionary history caused most of the genetic diversity within the species to be wiped out.

Professor Thomas believes that the Iberian lynx is different, and that its consistently low genetic diversity over the past 50,000 years suggests that it has always had a small population size.

The team carrying out the study are not sure exactly how the Iberian lynx has survived with such a small population size and low genetic diversity for thousands of years, while so many other animals have not.

Photo of Iberian lynx with prey

Iberian lynx with its main prey, the rabbit. Numbers of rabbits have declined throughout the lynx’s range in Spain since the 1950s.

Hope for the Iberian lynx

Nonetheless, such findings will give hope to conservationists who are working to save the Iberian lynx.

Dr Cristina Valdiosera, from the University of Copenhagen, added that the new research on the Iberian lynx suggests that a lack of genetic diversity in an endangered species should not hamper conservation efforts.

She said, “It’s a myth that certain species are doomed by their genetics.”

If a species is doomed, it is only doomed by a lack of will to conserve it.”

Although conservationists are hopeful that the Iberian lynx isn’t doomed by virtue of its small population and low genetic diversity, this species remains under threat.

The lynx is highly dependent on rabbits for its main food source, but the number of rabbits in its range has dramatically declined over the last few decades. Habitat destruction, human development and overhunting have also had notable impacts on the tiny remaining populations of this beautiful wild cat.

Find out more about the Iberian lynx on ARKive.

Read the full BBC article ‘Iberian lynx ‘not doomed’ by low genetic diversity’.

Read the paper in Molecular Ecology.

Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author