As if the endangered eastern lowland gorillas had not suffered enough, scientists this week confirmed the inevitable extinction of the subspecies.
Once in the mountain forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the number of primates has declined by 50–80 percent since the mid-1990s; Grauer's Gorillas now occupy only 13 percent of their historical range.
Years of civil unrest, poaching and destruction of the habitat led to the fact that not a few people died: a comparison of the genomes from historical and modern patterns of the eastern gorilla indicates a loss of genetic variations among kissing cousins.
Which, according to researchers from Uppsala University and the Swedish Museum of Natural History, means that primates probably became less able to adapt to future outbreaks of disease and changes in the environment.
“This recent increase in the number of harmful mutations really underlines the need to reverse the reduction in the number of Gorwell gorillas,” said Love Dalen, a professor at the Stockholm Natural History Museum.
As reported at Uppsala University, some of the potentially harmful mutations have been found in genes that affect disease resistance and male fertility.
Scientists have also identified anomalies that lead to loss of function of genes associated with the development of fingers and toes, which probably explains why some modern primates have fusion figures.
“Our study emphasizes that historical museum exhibits are a unique resource for monitoring recent changes in the genetic status of endangered species,” said Katerina Guschansky, an associate professor at Uppsala University.
Meanwhile, a closely related mountain gorilla shows no signs of genetic changes, suggesting that its hereditary viability has remained stable for the past 100 years.
(This was probably due to the permanent population of mountain gorillas for several thousand years; their small communities could allow natural selection to remove harmful mutations before their numbers began to decline in the 20th century.)
The full results were published this week in a journal. Current Biology,
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