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Mol Biol Evol. 2007 Aug;24(8):1801-10. Epub 2007 May 19.

Genetic viability and population history of the giant panda, putting an end to the "evolutionary dead end"?

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  • 1Key Laboratory of Animal Ecology and Conservation Biology, Institute of Zoology, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Haidian, Beijing, PR China.

Abstract

The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) is currently threatened by habitat loss, fragmentation, and human persecution. Its dietary specialization, habitat isolation, and reproductive constraints have led to a perception that this is a species at an "evolutionary dead end," destined for deterministic extinction in the modern world. Here we examine this perception by a comprehensive investigation of its genetic diversity, population structure, and demographic history across its geographic range. We present analysis of 655 base pairs of mitochondrial (mt) control region (CR) DNA and 10 microsatellite loci for samples from its 5 extant mountain populations (Qinling, Minshan, Qionglai, Liangshan, and Lesser Xiangling). Surprisingly, extant populations display average to high levels of CR and microsatellite diversity compared with other bear species. Genetic differentiation among populations was significant in most cases but was markedly higher between Qinling and the other mountain ranges, suggesting, minimally, that the Qinling population should comprise a separate management unit for conservation purposes. Recent demographic inference using microsatellite markers demonstrated a clear genetic signature for population decline starting several thousands years ago or even further back in the past, and being accelerated and enhanced by the expansion of human populations. Importantly, these data suggest that the panda is not a species at an evolutionary "dead end," but in common with other large carnivores, has suffered demographically at the hands of human pressure. Conservation strategies should therefore focus on the restoration and protection of wild habitat and the maintenance of the currently substantial regional genetic diversity, through active management of disconnected populations.

PMID:
17513881
[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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