Dung to show the pattern of evolution- Rhino excreta for research
Guwahati, Sept. 6: Dung is now being used by scientists in Assam to find out the genetic diversity of Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis), which will shed new light on its evolution and different aspects.
The wildlife genetics programme of Aaranyak has kicked off a two-year project, Population Genetic Monitoring of Indian Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) in Assam — an Evaluation of Genetic Diversity and Population Differentiation through Non-invasive Sampling, with international collaboration and funding by the International Rhino Foundation and the Asian Rhino Project, Australia.
The programme is headed by Udayan Borthakur, a visiting research student at the department of ecology and evolution, University of Chicago, who is co-ordinating Aaranyak’s wildlife genetics programme.
Dung as a genetic sample has never been attempted on Indian rhinos (use of faeces as genetic samples is already established in species such as tiger, elephant and so on).
“The project uses dung as a source of genetic material in identifying different individuals, evaluating their genetic diversity and the effect of recent habitat fragmentation on this species of grave conservation concern,” Borthakur told The Telegraph.
The project will evaluate the contemporary extent of genetic diversity of the species in the protected areas of Assam, find out the extent of population differentiation among the protected areas, evaluate the effect of habitat fragmentation and other geographic features as a barrier to gene flow in the protected areas.
“Dung samples are used primarily to avoid capturing the animal for collecting samples. Other samples such as tissue, blood and so on can also be used, but these would involve trapping of the animals, or other forms of disturbance. Also, with using blood and tissue as samples for genetic study, the total number of samples (hence individuals) that can be covered becomes a limiting factor to a major population genetic study,” Borthakur said.
It is easy to get and collect as animals defecate regularly and storage and transport require little technology or expense. Unravelling the genetic diversity will help to learn how and from what ancestors a species evolved over millions of years, changes in geographic distribution, and behavioural characteristics.
Borthakur said the research is looking at the contemporary extent of genetic diversity. It will ascertain how much genetic diversity the current rhino populations such as Kaziranga, Orang and Pobitora holds, whether the distribution of genetic diversity among these areas is homogeneous or heterogeneous, and how habitat fragmentation is affecting contemporary genetic exchange among these areas.
“We are also looking at the pattern and direction of movement of rhinos among these protected areas. The expected output of this work is to answer these research questions,” he said. Rhinoceros dung samples from Kaziranga National Park, Orang National Park and Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary have already been collected.
Borthakur said the project aims at studying recent changes, that has occurred following rampant habitat destruction in past 100-200 years.
Experiments and analysis for the project are being done at the Wildlife Genetics Laboratory has been started by Aaranyak on its premises, which is the first of its kind in the Northeast.