New tools for mapping genetic data improve marine protection

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Originally published on NRDC Expert Blog.
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Maps help us make sense of the world. They reveal patterns and relationships and bring together different types of information in an easily understandable format. In one new scientific article, my co-authors and I present a “geospatial genetics” approach to mapping genetic data so that it can more easily support marine protection efforts.

Examples of geospatial genetic data layers and graphics from the 3 interactive case studies for humpback whales (top), spinner dolphins (middle) and bottlenose dolphins (bottom). Credit: Kershaw et al. 2021. CQA. Published online June 25, 2021.

Biodiversity is made up of genetic bricks. We must maintain genetic diversity and protect evolutionary processes if biodiversity is to persist in the long term. A more diverse gene pool also promotes resilience to environmental disturbances, such as habitat loss and climate change.

The importance of protecting genetic diversity and evolutionary processes has been reflected in international and regional environmental policies, including the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and the European Union Strategy for Biodiversity.

Despite these commitments, the systematic use of genetic information in the protection of the environment has been lack of practice. A main driver is a disconnect of knowledge and communications between geneticists and decision makers and managers. On the one hand, geneticists generate a wealth of useful information that is not easily understood or readily available. On the other hand, there is a need to raise awareness of the relevance of genetics for environmental protection.

Genetic data provides unique information essential for the effective management and protection of marine species, such as these long-beaked dolphins. Credit: ADAM U (NOAA license # 14097).

To help fill this gap, the NRDC worked with an international collaboration of scientists affiliated with the University of California – Santa Barbara, University of Idaho, University of Los Andes, Vida Silvestre Uruguay, Tethys Research Institute, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the IUCN Joint SSC / WCPA Working Group on Marine Mammal Protected Areas, to develop the geospatial genetics approach. This approach has been refined through a series of meetings (including roundtables and workshops) and scientific papers published from 2013 and has been informed by a wide range of scientific and policy experts.

In this article, we explain how genetic data (such as measures of population differentiation or connectivity) can be transformed into simple layers of geospatial data using mapping software. These genetic maps can then be overlaid or compared to other types of spatial data (such as habitat maps or satellite tracked animals) and used to support decision making.

The maps help show how important areas for marine mammals (blue polygons) protect the genetic diversity of four populations of humpback whales (populations: C1-C3, ASHW). Red indicates areas of low diversity and green indicates areas of high diversity. Credit: Kershaw et al. 2021. CQA. Published online June 25, 2021.

We present the geospatial genetics approach through a series of interactive case studies focused on marine mammals in different geographic regions: Humpback whales in the south-eastern Atlantic and the western Indian Ocean, bottlenose dolphins in Hawaii and bottlenose dolphins in the Greater Caribbean. The case studies are hosted on Sailor sketch, a collaborative marine spatial planning tool that allows practitioners to easily map and explore different layers of genetic and non-genetic data, access additional graphics and information, test different marine spatial planning scenarios and s ” actively engage with stakeholders throughout the planning process.

The geospatial genetics approach was then used to inform the identification of Important marine mammal areas (or “IMMA”), an initiative led by the IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Working Group to apply criteria for identifying marine mammal habitats in the oceans, seas and inland waters relevant to the United States. world through a standardized process.

IMMAs are defined as discrete portions of habitat important for marine mammal species, which have the potential to be delineated and managed for conservation purposes. IMMAs are not prescriptive and, as a purely biocentric, evidence-based process, they have no inherent legislative or intended management outcomes. Yet, by highlighting areas of regional or global importance to marine mammals, they can serve as powerful tools to inform marine protection and spatial planning processes, especially when countries have specific commitments towards protection. marine mammals.

Genetic data mapping promotes collaboration and makes it more likely that important evolutionary processes are protected. Credit: F Kershaw

Geospatial genetics can be easily applied to terrestrial or marine species and we hope this approach will spark increased collaboration between geneticists and practitioners. Our article presents a starting point and many interesting questions remain about how best to apply the geospatial genetics approach in different geographic areas and for different species, as well as how to improve the spatial representation of the data. genetic.

What is clear from our work to date is that it is important for geneticists to be involved in marine protection efforts. This increased opportunity for dialogue and cooperation will serve to advance the field of geospatial genetics more rapidly and help ensure that evolutionary processes are systematically factored into marine protection and marine spatial planning decisions.


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