May 24 (UPI) -- Understanding which genes help dolphins survive can help conservationists identify potential threats to the animal's population, new research shows.
Dolphins may need certain immune genes for survival in particular ecosystems, according to a study published Thursday in Ecology and Evolution.
"Genetic diversity is crucial for animals to adapt to a changing environment -- for example, diverse genes can help populations defend against diseases and tolerate climate change -- but not all genetic diversity is equally important," Oliver Manlik, a researcher at United Arab Emirates University and study lead author, said in a news release.
Some gene variants are considered neutral genetic markers, which don't serve any survival or adaptation function for an animal. The researchers compared two bottlenose dolphin populations from Western Australia, one with neutral genes and the other with diverse major histocompatibility complex genes.
"In order to identify genetic variants that are necessary for animals to adapt and to survive, it is important to focus on genes that are linked to ecologically important traits," Manlik said. "One such group of genes are the immune genes of the major histocompatibility complex, which play a critical role in recognizing pathogens and starting an immune defense."
The researchers found the Shark Bay dolphins possess higher immunogenetic diversity compared to those in Bunbury, which probably means they're more robust to natural or man-created changes throughout the coastal ecosystem.
However, that doesn't mean the Shark Bay dolphins will always be safe, the researchers say.
"In other words, having greater MHC diversity may offer extra protection to these dolphins, but certainly does not make them invincible to the many threats they face," Manlik said.