Category Archives: Genetics

Was the lion ever native to India?

lion india ashokaIn 2013 a book was published by Valmik Thapar which presented the idea that both the cheetah and the lion were most probably non-native species in India, introduced as captive animals from Africa or Central Asia, trained or used for Royal entertainment in the many substantial parks across the subcontinent and, with the demise of the various imperial and local royal dynasties between the 1200s and the mid 20th century, feral animals had become established as wild populations, hence the species now being seen as native (and rare – the lion, or extinct  -the cheetah).

This is an intriguing idea. The basis for these ideas runs from the lack of early accounts of either lion or cheetah in the region, but the subsequent rise of the follwing occurences in the time since Alexander the Great:

  • An active series of royal hunting parks and hunitng as a royal passtime with the use of lions and cheetahs being particlualry culturally important
  • Animals were exported to India from Central Europe and the middle east and also from Africa
  • The genetics of Indian lions show inbreeding suggesting an originally tiny population (escapee captive animals)
  • The genetics of captive Asiatic Lions (in the USA) shows traits of African subspecies.
  • Indian lions are ‘tame’ relative to their African counterparts (including accounts form North Africa)

Thapar and his co-writers concede that they examine this as naturalists and hitorians, rather than from a deep scientific examination of evidence. But the proposal does raise testable questions:

What are the research implications?

Do we understand the genetics of Indian lions relative to (and as different from) African lions? See recent work by Barnett et al. (2014).

Are all Asiatic lions Asiatic-African hybrids? This was the case in American Zoo animals in the 1980s – but those zoos may have mismanaged Asiatic-African pairings in captivity earlier in the 20th century.

What are the conservation implications?

Should Asiatic lions still be conserved? – YES – even if they are non-native to India, they are the last remnants of the lions which once ranged from Egypt to India (i.e. to the banks of the Indus river).

Might Indian lions be close relatives of Barbary Lions? – This is an intriguing possibility (see Barnett et al. 2014).

What about an Indian – Moroccan Royal lions Hybrid? – if Indian lions are ‘tame’ (which is NOT the case with many captive Moroccan Royal lions), then you could out-breed ‘tameness’ and retain an authentic the asiatic (northern) subspecies of lion. Similalry Asiatic lioins could eb used to retain or ‘clean up’ the Moroccan lions if they are wshown to be Barbary/subSaharan hybrids.

 

There is little reason to accept Thapar’s hypotheses. Improvements in genetic analysis will enable us to better understand lion phylogeny in due course. In the meantime, precaution suggests continued efforts in Indian lion conservation are strongly recommended.

 

Reading:

Anon (2014) New Genetic Study Reconstructs Distribution History of Lion. Sci-News.com http://www.sci-news.com/genetics/science-distribution-lion-01892.html

Barnett, R. et al. (2014) Revealing the maternal demographic history of Panthera leo using ancient DNA and a spatially explicit genealogical analysis. BMC Evolutionary Biology 14: 70; doi: 10.1186/1471-2148-14-70

Thapar V., Thapar R., and Ansari Y. (2013) Exotic Aliens: the lion and cheetah in India. Aleph, India.

 

De-extinction: dinosaur to dodo… or at least to the Barbary lion?

Is the prospect of a lion living wild in the Moroccan landscape just fantasy fiction?

Is the prospect of a lion living wild in the Moroccan landscape just fantasy fiction?

The growth in knowledge of genetic technologies has raised the topic of “De-extinction”, the recovery of extinct species. But is it worth spending money and resources to produce a conservation ‘gimmick’, like a resurrected mammoth? This is a question of ethics; the value of a curiosity. But there are practical implications as well; if we are to reintroduce species into the wild, are we really good enough at reintroductions to make this a success (Donlan 2014)?

De-extinction discussions often relate to famous species such as the Woolly Mammoth, Passenger Pigeon, Dodo and Thylacine and are often criticised for the “Jurassic Park” element of the argument. However one step back from those more spectacular proposals are recently lost sub-species including the Barbary Lion (Jones, 2014) as potential ambassadors or mascots for conservation and biodiversity recovery in their lands of origin. This prospect has been the on-off discussion concerning the fate of the lions of the Kings Collection in Morocco for decades (Nowell and Jackson 1996).

However, the argument for this type of work needs to go deeper. Recovery of such a formidable species into the wild requires a transformation in the landscape and in the thinking of local people, including the conservationists themselves to develop a sensible and worthwhile model of reintroduction. Reintroduction must match biology, socio-economics, local culture and politics – and most of these factors do not involve scientific expertise, but skills and knowledge in quite different aspects of work.

 Reading:

Donlan, J.  (2014) De-extinction in a crisis discipline. Frontiers of Biogeography, 6(1) http://escholarship.org/uc/item/2x70q4nk

Jones, K.E. (2014) From dinosaurs to dodos: who could and should we de-extinct? Frontiers of Biogeography, 6(1) http://escholarship.org/uc/item/9gv7n6d3

Nowell K.,  and Jackson P. (1996) Wild cats, status survey and conservation action plan. Gland: IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group.

Barbary lions: an opportunity for significant zoo-based conservation

The barbary lion is extinct in the wild, most probably since the early 1960s.

Up until that fairly recent time the Sultans of Morocco, followed by the Kings of Morocco after constitutional changes in the 1950s, kept lions in private menageries. These animals had been bred from cubs which were presented as tributes by Berber Tribes of the Atlas Mountains.

In the late 1960s the remaining lions were still in the King of Morocco’s lion garden at the palace of Fez, then later Rabat. After an outbreak of respiratrory disease in the collection in the late 1960s, the lions were then moved to a new purpose built zoo in Rabat in 1973 (Yamaguchi and Haddane, 2002).

The importance of this is that since that first transfer of animals, it has been possible to trace all lions of pure ancestry alive today back to their ancestors – these animals originally in the Moroocan Royal palace collection. This means that zoos holding these descendents have a unique opportunity to keep the bloodline pure, and alive. Efforts by a number of zoos in recent years (Port Lympne, Olomouc, Belfast, Hannover, Madrid) to make breeding transfers and to increase the number of cubs has enabled the population to recover. As recently as 2008 it looked like breeding of these animals was likely to cease and at least one unique bloodline from the original 27 animals moved from the Royal Palace to Rabat zoo was lost at this time when an old non-breeding female in Germany died.

A rejuvinated zoo population with active, well managed transfers of animals between collectiosn will geive enough time for deeper scinetific and genetic analysis to determine the uniqueness and deeper ancestry of these Moroccan animals and their significance to lion conservation.

 

Black S, Yamaguchi N, Harland A, Groombridge J (2010). Maintaining the genetic health of putative Barbary lions in captivity: an analysis of Moroccan Royal Lions. Eur J Wildl Res 56: 21–31. doi: 10.1007/s10344-009-0280-5

Yamaguchi N, Haddane B. (2002). The North African Barbary lion and the Atlas Lion Project. International Zoo News 49: 465-481.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8109000/8109945.stm

Ancient DNA work opens the book on Barbary lion genetics

Several research studies over the last few years have started to identify where the lions of North Africa sit in the family tree of lion populations across the globe.

The 2006 paper by Barnett, Yamaguchi, Barnes and Cooper explored how mitochondrial DNA sequences could be used to differentiate lion populations, using ancient samples of known origin. This work included identification of a sequence apparently unique to Barbary lions. These techniques were used to confirm that the lion skulls retrieved from the moat of the Tower of London in the 1930s were in fact Barbary lions (these skulls are now held by the Natural History Museum).

In the same year Burger and Hemmer published mitochondrial DNA analysis of a cub derived from the collection of the King of Morocco, now held at Rabat zoo.

A recent follow-on study by Barnett et al (2014) has continued to show similarities between Barbary lions and Asiatic lions, differentiating them form sub-Saharan African lions.

Matt Walker at the BBC Nature website has written a good summary of the latest research.