Few wildlife species stir our emotions and reach the iconic status of the American bison, and for generations this species has symbolized the strength and sprit of the American west. From its rapid demise over 100 years ago when animal numbers fell from millions to just a few hundred survivors, to the spectacular recovery that now allows thousands of animals to roam throughout many US and Canadian federal lands, bison have proven to be an ultimate survivor.
Over the last 10 years, scientists from Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences have conducted genetic studies to help ensure the long-term conservation of bison by identifying critical issues affecting germplasm (DNA) integrity and diversity. Through the course of these studies, Drs. James Derr, Natalie Halbert and Joe Templeton have amassed one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of DNA samples from any wildlife species.
A majority of their work has involved the US Federal bison herds and has been funded through the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the US Geological Survey. Working with personnel from these Department of Interior agencies, Texas A&M University scientists have collected DNA samples from blood and/or hair follicles from well over 4500 individual bison. These samples were collected from five National Parks (Badlands NP, Grand Teton NP, Theodore Roosevelt NP, Wind Cave NP and Yellowstone NP) and five Fish and Wildlife Service herds (Fort Niobrara NWR, National Bison Range, Neal Smith NWR, Sully’s Hill National Game Preserve and Wichita Mountains NWR). Bert Frost, Associate Director for Natural Resource Stewardship and Science notes that “bison are the icon of the Department of the Interior and this work represents a giant step in retaining genetic integrity in these bison herds and maximizing their genetic diversity in the future.”
“Making these DNA samples available for future research focusing on the long term survival and health of this important keystone species should be a priority,” says Sue Haseltine Associate Director for Biology at the US Geological Survey.
This valuable repository of bison genetic material and a tremendous amount of associated scientific data were recently accessioned into the Museum of Southwestern Biology, Division of Genomic Resources, at the University of New Mexico. This internationally recognized museum manages a number of federal collections and is the largest frozen archive for wild mammals in the world. The museum will professionally curate these samples and provide worldwide access through a web-based database to investigators that are interested in using bison DNA for scientific purposes.
Each bison DNA sample was carefully divided into two portions, one aliquot was delivered to the permanent archive at the Museum of Southwestern Biology at the University New Mexico and the other half of each sample will remain at Texas A&M University for ongoing genetic studies.
As pointed out by the scientists at Texas A&M University, “our hope is that studies of American bison conservation genetics using modern genomic technologies will serve as a model for conscientious stewardship of other species worldwide, and that making these DNA samples available to the scientific community will ultimately help protect this treasured natural resource.”
Angela G. Clendenin
Director, Communications & Public Relations
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