According to a recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Conservation Science, the Eurasian lynx in France is currently on the edge of extinction. This elusive wild cat – which was reintroduced to Switzerland in the 1970s and moved across the French border by the end of the decade – is experiencing a rapid loss of genetic diversity and is thus in desperate need of help to survive.
“Given the rapid loss of genetic diversity, we estimate that this population will go extinct in less than 30 years,” said study lead author Nathan Huvier, an expert in Wildlife Monitoring at the Centre Athenas, an environmental organization in France. “This population urgently needs new genetic material to become sustainable.”
Scientists estimate that the population of lynxes hidden deep within France’s Jura Mountains consists of about 150 adults and is poorly connected to larger and healthier populations in Germany and Switzerland. Due to a combination of poaching, car accidents, and inbreeding depression – a phenomenon in which insufficient genetic diversity causes problems with reproduction and survival – the growth of France’s lynx population has been suppressed.
In order to determine the genetic health of this population, the scientists collected genetic samples between 2008 and 2020. Because of the current precarity of this population, samples were only taken while attending to lynxes that were already injured of dead, as well as from orphaned cubs. “For us, this method is more ethical as there is no capture and thus stress induced for DNA sampling only,” Huvier explained.
The researchers collected a total of 78 samples covering 23 genetic loci and compared them to references from the parent lynx population residing in the Carpathian Mountains. The analysis revealed that, although the size of the French population of lynxes is likely between 120 and 150, the effective population size (the estimated number of healthy breeding individuals needed to display such a level of genetic diversity) is in fact only 38.
Even more alarmingly, the experts found that the inbreeding coefficient – a measure of the likelihood that two mating individuals from the same population are closely related – was very high. According to the data, there is a 41 percent probability that an individual’s two copies of an allele at any given locus in their genome were inherited from a common ancestor of both parents. Thus, without any new genetic material, this population will likely collapse.
In order to protect the remaining population, road signs rising awareness of the presence of lynxes, together with stricter enforcement of laws against poaching are urgently needed. Moreover, replacement of poached lynxes with conspecifics from healthier populations elsewhere and the exchange of orphaned cubs between wildlife rescue centers could also help reverse the genetic collapse this population faces.
“We want this work to support action for lynx conservation. Reintroduction, replacement of poached lynxes, and exchange of orphan lynxes between care centers are the best short-term solution for this population to remain alive, and it will give it a chance to develop and connect with other populations in Europe,” Huvier concluded.
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