Michael Russello and colleagues from Yale found evidence of genetic diversity among tortoises of the Galápagos Islands
UBC Reports | Vol. 52 | No. 7 |
Jul. 6, 2006
Exploring Ecology at the Molecular Level
By Bud Mortenson
The Galápagos islands — where Charles Darwin first found evidence that would lead to his theory of natural selection — became a little more diverse last summer. Michael Russello and research colleagues from Yale University used mitochondrial and nuclear DNA analyses to identify previously unknown genetic diversity among the endangered tortoises in that remote Pacific archipelago.
Where only one tortoise taxon had been thought to exist on the island of Santa Cruz, Russello’s research team identified genetic evidence that these tortoises actually represent three lineages — genetic divergence warranting the identification of at least one new taxon.
“Because accurate taxonomy underpins effective conservation policy, these results have fundamental importance for preserving the genetic and taxonomic diversity of these historically significant reptiles,” says Russello.
Russello, who is moving this summer from Yale University to a faculty position in the Department of Biology at UBC Okanagan, is currently exploring a range of questions in ecological and conservation genetics. One such study explores the molecular ecology and population dynamics of the Amur (Siberian) tiger, a recovering but highly endangered species.
“The conservation implications of the Amur tiger research project will aid the further development of an interactive management program — co-ordinating wild population surveys and habitat quality assessments with scientifically managed breeding and reintroduction of genetic variation,” he says.
The hallmarks of UBC Okanagan — an intimate learning community with a strong research focus — are what drew Russello to the Okanagan campus.
“UBC Okanagan offers a remarkable balance of a research-intensive institution that offers small class sizes and a strong sense of community,” says Russello. “The proximity of UBC Okanagan to the southern Okanagan, a region of significant conservation interest, provides myriad opportunities for basic and applied research with both local and global implications.”
One of his areas of interest in the Okanagan Valley is in exploring the genetic differences between kokanee (land-locked freshwater salmon) that spawn along the shores of Okanagan lakes, and those that spawn in the many creeks that feed the lakes. The number of kokanee stream spawners has plummeted in recent decades — some estimates say to as little as 10 per cent of their 1970 spawning numbers.
“We have more and more information on the salmon genome — that will serve as a backbone to study the difference between shoreline and stream spawners,” says Russello. “We could potentially pinpoint the genetic region or regions that may allow for these different behaviours.