Lab research
Genetic basis of adaptation in a conservation context
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Conservation biologists have long appreciated the importance of preserving the ability of organisms to adapt to changing environments. Although generally viewed as a hallmark goal of conservation biology, little research has been conducted towards identifying adaptive genetic variation that contributes to a species evolutionary potential and ability to survive future environmental changes. Until recently, our capacity to directly quantify adaptive genetic variation has been limited to a handful of model organisms studied under artificial conditions. The recent emergence of population genomics, which combines genomic technologies with population genetics theory, provides a framework for detecting genome-wide associations between segregating variation and fitness-related traits in natural populations. This research area in my lab will entail one of the first applications of population genomics for studying adaptive population divergence within a conservation context. At a local scale, neutral and adaptive genetic variation will be used to designate conservation units between two sympatric ecotypes of the threatened Okanagan lake kokanee and to elucidate the genetic basis underlying their distinct reproductive behaviors. Benefits of this research include identifying molecular markers linked to fitness-related traits for guiding stock assessment, long-term ecological monitoring, and evaluating management practices. At the landscape level, genomic scans will be conducted to better understand the genetic basis of adaptation along an environmental gradient in a climate change sensitive species, the Common pika of British Columbia. As a high latitude country, current models predict Canada may experience higher than average warming, with significant implications for the distribution of native flora and fauna. This research has the potential to be among the first to investigate patterns of variation at genomic regions influencing a species ability to respond to climate change. In addition to the basic and applied insights gained from this overall body of work, this program has the benefits of bringing together a collaboration of academic and governmental scientists while providing extensive opportunities for undergraduate and graduate student training.
Revealing cryptic diversity in species-at-risk
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A large number of cryptic species are being discovered and described as techniques for examining biological diversity in all forms become more widely accessible. Although important for increasing our knowledge of taxonomic diversity in the natural world, revealing cryptic diversity may also identify novel taxa of immediate conservation interest. I have led two studies that have revealed cryptic diversity within the giant tortoises of the Galápagos. The first reported three distinct lineages among populations formerly considered a single taxon on the most populous and accessible island of Santa Cruz; their diagnosability, degree of genetic divergence and phylogenetic placement merit the recognition of a new taxon (Russello et al., 2005, Biology Letters). In addition, this taxon warrants immediate attention given its small population size, reduced genetic variation, and imperiled habitat. A subsequent study revealed that “Lonesome George”, the apparent sole survivor of the Geochelone abingdoni species of giant Galápagos tortoises from Pinta Island, might not be so alone (Russello et al., 2007, Current Biology). This discovery of Pinta ancestry on the neighboring island of Isabela was only possible using a combination of historical DNA collection, simulation approaches and Bayesian clustering analyses relative to a large database including representative samplings for all extant Galápagos tortoise taxa. These results have important conservation implications for the future of G. abingdoni, and represent a model approach for uncovering cryptic diversity and reconstructing contemporary patterns of hybridization and introgression. Both of these studies received wide attention in the popular press, including feature stories in the New York Times, BBC News, and the Globe and Mail, and national and international radio and TV coverage. Additional studies employing historical DNA analysis of museum specimens identified the species and origin of the Anopheles vector of the 1930’s malaria epidemic in Brazil (Parmakelis et al., 2007, American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene), and suggested allospecies status for the Monk parakeet taxon restricted to the intermontane valleys of Bolivia (Russello et al., submitted, Evolutionary Applications).
Demographic history of species of conservation interest
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Evolutionary and demographic history of populations, along with evidence of current genetic and ecological diversity can describe levels of population distinctiveness and guide management initiatives of importance to the retention of intraspecific genetic variability and the long-term fitness of endangered populations. One study demonstrates the sensitivity of microsatellite genotypic data for detecting patterns of recent admixture in a small population of saltwater crocodiles on Palau potentially linked to human-mediated introductions of non-native taxa (Russello et al., 2007, Conservation Genetics). Another study in this research area illustrated the efficacy of using non-invasively collected scat (fecal) samples to investigate the genetic consequences of a human-mediated population bottleneck in an elusive carnivore, the endangered Amur tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) (Russello et al., 2004, Conservation Genetics). Moreover, these results revealed that more genetic variation may reside in the North American captive population of the Amur tiger than is remaining in the wild, a rare finding with tremendous conservation implications. Finally, Mike Russello is a co-author on a peer-reviewed book chapter in the forthcoming Population Genetics for Animal Conservation that reviews how population genetic approaches based on mitochondrial DNA and nuclear DNA microsatellite analyses have aided in reconstructing the evolutionary history of Galápagos giant tortoise populations, assessing demographic patterns and identifying units with substantial demographic and genetic independence to assist taxonomic designation and direct conservation efforts (Ciofi et al., in press).
Molecular approaches refine ex situ conservation in crisis
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Precisely how effective captive breeding is for conservation varies with the particular taxon, threats, and interconnectivity with other management strategies. In order to be effective as a conservation tool and overcome the serious challenges associated with maintaining small populations ex situ (e.g. inbreeding depression, selection for the captive environment), captive breeding programs must be scientifically managed, incorporating all available demographic and genetic information. Yet, imperfect genealogical information requires fundamental assumptions to be made that may bias downstream measures of genetic importance upon which management decisions are based. This series of studies explores ways in which molecular approaches may inform and refine ex situ conservation. At the finest scale, one study explored the degree to which microsatellite-based estimates of relatedness may improve upon the assumptions of conventional pedigree-based management for identifying genetically important individuals (Russello and Amato, 2004, Molecular Ecology). This work has been subsequently cited in two major review articles detailing modeling approaches in avian conservation (Beissinger et al., 2006, Auk 123: 1) and directions for the future of conservation genetics (DeSalle & Amato, 2004, Nature Reviews Genetics 5: 702). An ensuing study demonstrated how molecular approaches represent important tools for assessing conservation value, minimizing hybridization and guiding management programs for preserving taxonomic distinctiveness, using as a case study Galápagos tortoises in captivity (Russello et al., 2007, Animal Conservation). Molecular approaches are also quite useful for guiding and monitoring reintroduction programs, as we demonstrated for Galápagos tortoises in (Milinkovitch et al., 2007, BMC Ecology). In addition, I was recently invited to contribute a peer-reviewed, perspective piece to Molecular Ecology on this growing research area (Russello and Amato, 2007, Molecular Ecology).
Novel molecular tools for studies in ecology, evolution & conservation
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This collection of peer-reviewed articles describes the characterization of novel nuclear microsatellite markers to facilitate population studies in a wide variety of taxa (Russello et al., 2001, 2007, Molecular Ecology Notes; Russello et al., 2005, Conservation Genetics; Olson et al., 2006, Molecular Ecology Notes; Calcagnotto et al., 2001, Molecular Ecology Notes).  In addition, Zilversmit et al. (2001) details a method to facilitate high-throughput DNA sequence through the development of T3/T7-tailed sequencing primers.  We are currently exploring the use of AFLPs and EST-linked microsatellites in genomic scans for identifying gene regions of adaptive significance in natural populations of Okanagan lake kokanee and American pika.