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Genetic characterization of free-ranging Asiatic wild ass in Central Asia as a basis for future conservation strategies

Abstract

Loss of genetic diversity due to drift and inbreeding reduces a population’s ability to respond to environmental change and may result in inbreeding depression. The Asiatic wild ass (Equus hemionus), regionally also known as Gobi khulan, Turkmen kulan, or Persian onager, has become confined to less than 3% of its historic distribution range. Remaining populations in Central Asia outside of the Mongolian Gobi are small and fragmented. Questions concerning subpopulation status remain disputed and concerns over the viability of these populations have been raised because of small size, past bottlenecks, or recent founder events. We used non-invasive faecal samples to assess the genetic diversity and divergence among Turkmen kulan and Persian onager from five free-ranging and one captive population from Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Iran and compared their genetic constitution to the large autochthonous population in the Mongolian Gobi. We observed loss of genetic diversity (drift and inbreeding) in the captive and reintroduced populations as well as in one rapidly declining autochthonous population. Population differentiation and structure using microsatellites and mtDNA based phylogenetic analysis do not support the current separation of the autochthonous populations of Turkmen kulan and Persian onager into different subspecies, but rather suggest a cline with the Iranian population in Bahram-e-Goor at the southern end and the Turkmen population in Badhyz at the northern end falling into two distinct clusters, and the northern Iranian population in Touran being intermediate. We compare our findings to other population genetics studies of equids and discuss the implications of our findings for the future conservation of the Asiatic wild ass in the region.

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Acknowledgements

In Kazakhstan work was carried out under a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK) and the Ministry of Agriculture. We are grateful for support from Altyn Emel National Park staff, particularly K. Bayadilov. In Turkmenistan work was carried out under the MoU between the Ministry of Nature Protection of Turkmenistan and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), dated 13 February 2014, to protect birds and other biodiversity in Turkmenistan. J. Saparmuradov, K. Annagulyev, S. Karryeva, N. Khudaykuliyev, I. Ishanov, C. Durdyev, A. Veyisov, (A) Kurbanov, P. Azat, and K. Maksat were instrumental while additional information was provided by V. Kuznetsov. RSPB staff M. Day, S. Ward, E. Ball, and G. Welch provided us with much needed logistical support and background information. In Iran work was carried out under a MoU between the Department of Natural Resources at the Isfahan University of Technology (IUT) and the Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology (FIWI) of the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna. We are grateful to M. Nosrati, (B) Shahriari, M. Hosseini, M.G. Marashi, B. Jourabchian (Department of Environment (DoE) Headquarters, Tehran), H. Valavi, F. Hooman, L. Joulaie, H. Ebrahimi, M. Mohammadjani, A. Rastegar, M. Ranjbar, A.A. Ghorbanloo (Fars DoE), M. Teymouri (Yazd DoE), (A) Damangir, (B) Zaheri, M. Adibi (Semnan DoE), as well as S. Esmaili, M. Momeni, and S. Hering-Hagenbeck. Funding for this work came from the Verband der Zoologischen Gärten, RSPB, Nuremberg Zoo, FIWI, the Research Council of Norway (Grant 251112) and the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research. The molecular and population genetic analyses were carried out at Unit of Molecular Zoology, Chair of Zoology, Technische Universität München.

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Kaczensky, P., Kovtun, E., Habibrakhmanov, R. et al. Genetic characterization of free-ranging Asiatic wild ass in Central Asia as a basis for future conservation strategies. Conserv Genet 19, 1169–1184 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10592-018-1086-3

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Keywords

  • Asiatic wild ass
  • Equus hemionus
  • Microsatellites
  • MtDNA
  • Inbreeding
  • Reintroduction