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Genome sequences reveal genetic diversity in Sumatran rhinoceros

Genome sequences reveal genetic diversity in Sumatran rhinoceros
Researchers have found low levels of inbreeding among Sumatran Rhinos, which they say bodes well for the species as conservationists look for ways to increase their numbers. File Photo by STR/EPA-EFE

April 26 (UPI) -- With fewer than 100 animals remaining in the wild, the Sumatran rhinoceros is one of the most endangered mammals on the planet.

Newly acquired genome sequencing data has offered the rhino, and the people trying to save them, a bit of good news - scientists found little evidence of inbreeding among the Sumatran rhinos that remain.

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According to the data, published Monday in the journal Nature Communications, the shrinking Sumatran rhinoceros population still hosts a surprisingly amount of genetic diversity.

As previous studies have revealed, habitat fragmentation and population declines can lead to declines in genetic diversity.

RELATED Last Sumatran rhinoceros in Malaysia dies of cancer in wildlife reserve

To measure the genetic health of Sumatran rhinos, scientists sequenced the genomes of 16 rhinos, most from present-day populations in Borneo and Sumatra.

Researchers also sequenced the genomes of a few specimens from a recently extinguished Malaysian population, as well as a few other historical specimens.

"To our surprise, we found relatively low inbreeding levels and high genetic diversity in the present-day populations on Borneo and Sumatra," study co-author Johanna von Seth, doctoral student at the Center for Palaeogenetics at Stockholm University in Sweden, said in a news release.

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While genomic data collected from the recently disappeared Malaysian rhinos showed declining genetic diversity, the genomes of Borneo and Sumatra rhinos revealed genetic diversity levels on par with those measured among historic specimens.

Scientists suspect the Sumatran rhinoceros' population declines are so recent that they haven't yet had an effect on genetic health.

That's good news for conservationists. The genetic health is there to be preserved.

RELATED First Sumatran rhino seen in Borneo in decades dies

However, scientists did find increases in the prevalence of a handful of potentially harmful genetic mutations. If inbreeding rates increase, these mutations could proliferate, yielding population-wide health problems.

"Unless the populations start increasing in size, there is a high risk that inbreeding levels will start rising, and consequently that genetic diseases will become more common," said co-author Nicolas Dussex, postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Palaeogenetics.

In addition to protecting habitat in order to grow the local Sumatran rhino populations, researchers suggest rhinos from the two islands, Borneo and Sumatra, could be transplanted to help maintain genetic diversity among the two groups. Artificial insemination could offer similar benefits.

Researchers hope their work will inspire other conservation scientists to use genomic sequencing to inform species protection efforts.

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