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Mind the gap: why is genetics often missing from conservation?

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.

…the conservation genetics gap, that is.

Imagine working away for years on a conservation genetics project with dreams of saving threatened species, only to have the data go…nowhere outside of scientific publishing. The majority of conservation planning documents don’t contain genetic data, which means a whole lot of genetic data aren’t making it into conservation planning and policy. Given the increased extinction risk that goes hand in hand with loss of genetic diversity, this is a concern.

To ensure your hard-won conservation genetic data makes a difference, you have to understand the conservation genetics gap. Then you have to figure out how to bridge it. In this new blog series created especially for the AGA, we will be doing exactly that, and taking a look at some of the organisations and projects that have essentially jumped the gap like Evel Knievel/Kanye West riding a rocket.

You, flying across the conservation genetics gap by the end of this blog series.

What is this gap you speak of?

 Research implementation gaps are found wherever there is a need for research data to be integrated into policy and planning decisions. Medicine1, marketing2, education3– all fields with well-established gaps between the folks doing the research and the folks putting the research into practice (or, not). Research implementation gaps can be found throughout conservation4, but the one we’re interested in here is between conservation genetics research, and conservation policy, planning, and management. This is the conservation genetics gap.

How do we know the gap is real?

Does the conservation genetics gap only exist in the mind of disgruntled, embittered conservation geneticists? The evidence suggests not. Is there a genetic criterion in threatened species listings like the IUCN Red List? Nope5. Are there clear, well stated genetic targets for biodiversity conservation in the Convention on Biological Diversity’s post-2020 biodiversity framework? Absolutely not6.

In fact, outside of the US, where genetics can be found in the majority of species recovery plans7, there is little evidence of genetics in conservation planning. In Australia in 2016, only 52% of species recovery plans featured genetics7. In Europe, it was a paltry 17% 7. The gap has also been reported in South Africa8, Canada8,New Zealand9, and the countries bordering the Baltic Sea10. There’s almost no data on the gap in the global south (and that needs addressing), but it has been noted in Latin America11.

Early rumbles in the con gen jungle

Conservation genetics in the 80s and 90s was basically a giant smackdown.

Unfortunately, in the early days of conservation genetics (aka the 80s and 90s), there were a few haters (official science term) who claimed genetics wasno big deal for threatened species12,13. Famous survivors of extreme population bottlenecks like the Chatham Island black robin were used as evidence that genetic threats were not serious. As the brilliant, and now sadly deceased, Michael Soulépointed out, this argument completely ignores all the species we can’t see that became extinct following population bottlenecks14. It is, as Fred Allendorf and Nils Ryman observed, like pointing out 90-year-old smokers as evidence that smoking does not harm your health15.

Since then, numerous studies have demonstrated that a failure to preserve genetic diversity and guard against inbreeding will likely end badly in terms of a species’ ability to adapt to change and avoid extinction16,17,18,19. Conservation genetics is a well-established field. If these ideas are so well known, why aren’t we seeing them integrated into conservation policy?

Chatham Island black robins experienced a bottleneck of one pair of birds, but today number some 250 birds. They are often hailed as a conservation success, but are extremely inbred and show signs of inbreeding depression. (By frances schmechel – originally posted to Flickr as DSCF3430 black robin by NG, CC BY-SA 2.0,

What are the forces driving the gap?

Many conservation geneticists are, understandably, concerned about the gap and have spent numerous scientific papers pontificating over what is behind it. Suggestions have ranged from “we’re using too much jargon”20, to “practitioners have got more pressing, immediate extinction risks to worry about”8,9, to “they think genetics is too expensive”21, to “they don’t understand the benefits of genetics”7, and “they can’t access the genetics in the scientific literature”8. All good thoughts, but all anecdotal and speculative. Eventually, we, as a community, started actually asking practitioners why they weren’t using genetics.

Surveys of conservation practitioners in New Zealand22, Australia23,24,Canada25, and the USA26 have illustrated that conservation practitioners are far more positive towards genetics than they perhaps used to be. They see the value of genetics, but feel they don’t know enough about it to implement it properly. They want to know more, but are unsure who to talk to. There are also issues around an almost complete lack of conservation genetic literature in the native languages of non-English speakers27. All these barriers, coupled with the various levels and branches of governance that regional conservation managers might be dealing with28, act as erosive forces that widen the gap.

It’s not all bad!

This might all feel very negative, but if we understand the drivers behind the gap, we can start to build bridges across it. In the next blog in this series, we’ll take a look at ways to bring genetics firmly into conservation management, some of the organisations working to do so, and why genomics could widen the gap still further if we’re not very careful.




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:





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