UCLA genetics research aids conservation management

November 9, 2017
Side-blotched lizards, pictured above, were one of seven species studied by UCLA researchers investigating genetic variation in the Santa Monica Mountains. Results on how much variation occurs in different areas and species can have major implications on conservation planning.

A team of UCLA researchers, including Ryan Harrigan from the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and Robert Wayne and Thomas Smith from the department of ecology and evolutionary biology teamed up with the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and Heal the Bay to look at the genetic diversity and environmental variation in seven Los Angeles species, including side-blotched lizards, Pacific tree frogs, and bobcats to identify areas that should be prioritized in future conservation management decisions. Because increased genetic variation predicts a species’ resiliency to environmental changes and reinforces local ecosystem health, understanding the amount of genetic variation in populations of different species in an area makes conservation management decisions more focused and impactful. The researchers modeled current and future genetic variation in populations of these seven species that are fragmented due to urbanization. They wanted to understand the effects of natural environmental variation such as temperature and elevation, as well as the effects of human-caused variation, such as the 101 freeway that cuts across their habitat, on the genetic variation found within these populations. The researchers discovered that most of the genetic variation could be explained by natural environmental factors, and that although the 101 freeway made it difficult for species to move from one area to another, it did not have as significant of an impact on genetic variation as the environmental factors. This research, published in Conservation Biology will help conservation managers anticipate how local populations will respond to changes in climate and which zones should be prioritized for conservation.