January 14, 2019

Lynx Genome

UMass Amherst scientist finds a new way to track an elusive cat

Led by Tanya Lama, a doctoral candidate in environmental conservation at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a team of scientists has published the first-ever whole genome for the Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis), a North American feline native to the boreal forests across Canada and the northern United States.

Genomes provide information about genetic health, demographics, and evolutionary history. Conservation genetics, explains Lama, is a field that “uses genetics as a tool for informing how we manage, conserve, or recover species.” It helps estimate the size, gene flow, and adaptive variations of animal populations—information critical to policy decisions regarding wildlife.

Canada lynx face

Photograph by Bill Byrne, Mass Wildlife

With the genome in hand, Lama and her colleagues hope to learn more about the relationship between lynx in Maine and their neighbors in New Brunswick and Quebec, as well as how these populations connect to the core lynx population in eastern Canada, across the formidable barrier of the St. Lawrence River. 

Connectivity between animal populations is essential to their genetic health. When populations become small, isolated, and interbred, they lose resiliency, becoming vulnerable to the loss of individuals and environmental changes, and at a higher risk of becoming locally extinct.

The connectivity between the lynx populations south of the St. Lawrence is key to their continued survival. Genomic tools can help scientists conceive of conservation measures such as wildlife corridors that facilitate the movement of lynx—and consequently, their genes—across the landscape.

The “lynx team” includes scientists from the Massachusetts Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, the U.S. Geological Survey Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, the Smithsonian Institution, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and bioinformatics experts at the New York-based Vertebrate Genomes Project. 

Their findings will also be of great use to conservationists across the rest of the lynx’s distribution: Minnesota, Montana, and northeastern Idaho, Washington, the greater Yellowstone area, and Colorado.

The Canada lynx was listed as threatened in 2000 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but a recent recommendation by that same organization has proposed “delisting” the animal from Endangered Species Act protections. 

Now that the lynx’s genome is known, conservationists and policy makers will be able to use this new insight to inform decisions influencing the fate of this beautiful, threatened species.