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Bridge over troubled water: getting across the conservation genetics gap

 

About the author:

Dr Helen Taylor is a conservation geneticist who studied for her PhD in New Zealand, working on inbreeding in little spotted kiwi. She went on to undertake postdoctoral research on inbreeding and male fertility in passerines and, at that point, became interested in the integration of genetics into conservation management. After eight years in New Zealand, Dr Taylor left academia and headed back to the UK to work as conservation programme manager at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. Find out more here: www.helentaylorscience.com

 

 

In this series, written specially for the AGA Blog, Dr. Taylor will be exploring the gap between conservation genetics research and conservation implementation, showcasing some examples of how the gap is being closed for various species and projects, and exploring what it means to be a conservation geneticist in the modern sense (aka, why at least some of this is our fault and we need to do better). Strap in for a rollercoaster ride through the politics of conservation genetics, viewed through the lens of a former academic who now works in conservation management.

Recognizing and defining a problem can be tricky, but effecting change to overcome that problem is even harder. This post is a whistle-stop tour through some potential solutions to help close the conservation genetics gap, an issue I described in my previous post.

We can’t all join every group working on the conservation genetics gap, but we can work for change at local and even individual scales. To make bridge building less daunting, I’ve broken the potential solutions into international/systemic team endeavours vs. smaller, localised efforts.

FEATS OF ENGINEERING: BUILDING BIG BRIDGES

One for all the bridge fans – one of my favourite local bridges and a true feat of late 19th century engineering, the Forth Bridge near Edinburgh.

Infiltrating the system

Embedding geneticists into conservation departments is a very direct way to bridge the conservation genetics gap. In the US, agencies like USFS, USGS, FWS, and NOAA all have their own in-house genetics teams. This could be why genetics is better integrated into conservation management in the US compared to any other countries yet studied1. However, you can’t necessarily just go hire a bunch of geneticists and solve the problem.

Starting an in-house genetics team from scratch could be daunting for many conservation organisations. This change requires investment in lab facilities or close collaboration with an existing facility. Additionally, some practitioners have indicated they would prefer to collaborate with external academics rather than an in-house team2,3, although the reasoning behind this assertion is unclear, so there may be unrecognised challenges.

Human bridges

Boundary organisations bring together folks from science, policy, and practice, with the aim of facilitating dialogue between the three4. Groups like COST G-BIKE Action and the IUCN Conservation Genetics Specialist Group (CGSG) bridge various countries and organisations in an attempt to better integrate genetics into conservation (see full list here5).

Funding is, as ever, an issue for boundary-spanning groups. If funding is available, it’s likely finite, and planning for future funding bids is crucial to the project continuing (see the evolution of ConGRESS6 into G-BIKE COST Action). When funding is absent (as for IUCN CGSG), encouraging and maintaining participation from a diverse global group becomes challenging. Having IUCN on your CV is great, but it doesn’t (usually) pay the bills or the transport costs for meetings.

Zoo-based organisations that have their own conservation genetics labs (full disclosure, I work for one) are often already functioning as a kind of boundary organisation. Zoo conservation genetics teams necessarily sit at the interface between captive breeding and reintroduction projects, bringing together partners from government and non-government organizations all over the world. When effective, they eat conservation genetics gaps for breakfast and offer excellent examples of how we can all do the samee.g., 7.

Recognizing genetic threats

New Zealand’s little spotted kiwi is known to have extremely low genetic diversity and be at risk of inbreeding depression, yet was downgraded from Vulnerable to Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List, where genetic data rarely features. Photo Credit Helen Taylor.

The lack of genetic metrics in threat classification systems is both a driver of AND driven by genetics being overlooked in conservation. Solving this issue would be a coup for conservation genetics, but identifying the magical genetic metric that can help with threat assessments has proved…difficult.

Effective population size, inbreeding, loss of function mutations all seem like intuitive slam-dunks for threat status assessment8. However, we lack even basic genetic data for a huge number of redlisted species. There is also a lack of comparability between metrics estimated in different ways using different markers sets in different species. Groups like IUCN CGSG and the GEOBON Genetic Composition Working Groupare working on this, so watch this space.

 

 

 

 

 

 

STEPPING STONES: BUILDING SMALL BRIDGES

Think there’s no role for you or your lab group here? Think again! Sometimes baby steps are all you need to start bridging the conservation genetics gap.

Speaking their language

Children are the future, but they’re also famously unfamiliar with terms like allele and heterozygosity. Guided storytelling and prop-based demos can help get the importance of conservation genetics across to a naïve audience. Photo Credit Will Stovall

Ditch the jargon. Words like allele and heterozygosity, mean nothing to non-geneticists. We must focus on explaining to people why they should care about what we’re talking about in language they will understand. Using clear storytelling9,10and applied framing11 can help us achieve this. Tell people what the numbers in your giant FST table mean and why they matter but, for the love of all that is holy, don’t make them squint at the table – no one wants to see it. Really, no one.

Communication training can be tough to come by BUT many universities now have Science Communication, or Science and Society departments that might be able to help. Organizations like New Zealand’s Science Media Centre offer training on communicating your science to a lay audience via the media. Peer reviewing talks and reports within your lab group and with non-scientist friends can also be helpful; constructively identifying communication issues with a friendly audience prior to an event is far more pleasant than facing a sea of blank faces at that event.

Providing tools and training

Conservation genetics training could help address a general feeling among practitioners that they don’t know enough about conservation genetics and would like to know more2. This training requires effort and long-term commitment from geneticists. Practitioners have a lot on their plates and the effects of conservation genetics training have been shown to disappear over time, requiring reinforcement12.

Two relatively recent textbooks that bridge the gap using language tailored to practitioners, be it in English, or their native tongue. Credit Oxford University Press and Haupt Bern

Local events involving two-way discussions between conservation geneticists and conservation practitioners facilitate discussion13. Geneticists can explain the importance of their work while fielding questions from and discussing problems with practitioners. The key here is a collaborative space where both sides can improve each other’s understanding and work together to find solutions.

Finally, back to language, both written and coded. Genetic management textbooks re-written in practitioner-friendly language14, or indeed in the native language of the practitioners15, are a good start. Policy briefings translated into various languages are also a fantastic idea. And remember, the vast majority of practitioners do not code. If you want them to use your shiny new population genetics simulation programme, build in time to wrap it in a GUI interface.

Suck it up, buttercup

If this all seems like hard work, it’s because it is. The conservation genetics gap is not going to bridge itself. If we don’t find ways to get our data integrated into conservation practice and policy, then why are we generating that data? Just for LOLZ? I did have some LOLZ in my PhD, but also a few existential crises, so I wanted that work to be useful and used. In future posts, I’ll take a more detailed look at some projects and organizations that have built some pretty amazing bridges, to see what we can learn from their work.

 

References

  1. Pierson, J. C. et al.Genetic factors in threatened species recovery plans on three continents. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 14, 433–440 (2016).
  2. Taylor, H. R., Dussex, N. & van Heezik, Y. Bridging the conservation genetics gap by identifying barriers to implementation for conservation practitioners. Global Ecology and Conservation 10, 231–242 (2017).
  3. Taft, H. R. et al.Research–management partnerships: An opportunity to integrate genetics in conservation actions. Conservation Science and Practicen/a, e218 (2020).
  4. Cook, C. N., Mascia, M. B., Schwartz, M. W., Possingham, H. P. & Fuller, R. A. Achieving conservation science that bridges the knowledge–action boundary. Conservation Biology 27, 669–678 (2013).
  5. Hoban, S. et al.Genetic diversity targets and indicators in the CBD post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework must be improved. Biological Conservation 248, 108654 (2020).
  6. Hoban, S. M. et al.Conservation Genetic Resources for Effective Species Survival (ConGRESS): Bridging the divide between conservation research and practice. Journal for Nature Conservation 21, 433–437 (2013).
  7. Senn, H. v et al.Distinguishing the victim from the threat: SNP-based methods reveal the extent of introgressive hybridization between wildcats and domestic cats in Scotland and inform future in situ and ex situ management options for species restoration. Evolutionary Applications 12, 399–414 (2019).
  8. Leroy, G. et al.Next-generation metrics for monitoring genetic erosion within populations of conservation concern. Evolutionary applications 11, 1066–1083 (2017).
  9. Dahlstrom, M. F. Using narratives and storytelling to communicate science with nonexpert audiences. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111, 13614 LP – 13620 (2014).
  10. Sundin, A., Andersson, K. & Watt, R. Rethinking communication: integrating storytelling for increased stakeholder engagement in environmental evidence synthesis. Environmental Evidence 7, 6 (2018).
  11. Cook, C. N. & Sgrò, C. M. Conservation practitioners’ understanding of how to manage evolutionary processes. Conservation Biology 33, 993–1001 (2019).
  12. Lundmark, C., Sandström, A., Andersson, K. & Laikre, L. Monitoring the effects of knowledge communication on conservation managers’ perception of genetic biodiversity – A case study from the Baltic Sea. Marine Policy 99, 223–229 (2019).
  13. Holderegger, R. et al.Conservation genetics: Linking science with practice. Molecular Ecology 28, 3848–3856 (2019).
  14. Frankham, R. et al.A Practical Guide for Genetic Management of Fragmented Animal and Plant Populations. (Oxford University press, 2019).
  15. Zachos, F. et al.Naturschutzgenetik: Ein Handbuch für die Praxis. (Haupt Bern, 2016).

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