09 October 2019 | Story Leonie Bolleurs | Photo Leonie Bolleurs
SA animal population genetically more diverse than Europe
The Department of Genetics appointed the curator of the mammal collection in Austria’s Natural History Museum, Prof Frank Zachos. From the left are: Lerato Diseko, PhD Human Molecular Genetics; Prof Paul Grobler; Sivuyile Peni, MSc Molecular Genetics; Prof Frank Zachos; and Gerhard van Bosch, MSc Conservation Genetics.


South Africa is one of the greatest places on this planet to study mammals. These are the words of Prof Frank Zachos, newly appointed affiliated Professor in the Department of Genetics at the University of the Free State (UFS). 

He is also the curator of the Mammal Collection at the Natural History Museum in Vienna, Austria, the editor of the Elsevier journal Mammalian Biology, and author of several books, including Species Concepts in Biology. 

During a visit to South Africa, Prof Zachos addressed a group of UFS staff and students on the topic, ‘Conservation biology and genetics on two continents – case studies from mammalogy and ornithology’.

Inbreeding and deformities 

According to Prof Paul Grobler, Head of the UFS Department of Genetics, Prof Zachos has much experience in conservation biology studies. A large part of his work is on the population/conservation genetics of mammals (particularly deer) and, to a lesser degree, birds. Among others, he has studied red deer and the alpine golden eagle and has previously collaborated with Prof Grobler on projects involving local impala and gemsbok populations. 

Prof Grobler explains: “Typical conservation genetics studies helps one understand whether it's genetically going well with a species or population or not. This information can then be used to decide whether to move new animals to a population to prevent loss of genetic diversity.”

In his lecture, Prof Zachos explained the genetic diversity of red deer across Europe, and how this was influenced by past events (glaciers), but also by current anthropogenic factors (motor highways). 

He said there are several similarities between the mammals and birds of Europe and South Africa. The area south of the Sahara, however, is more of a biodiversity hotspot, unlike most areas in Europe where there is often lower genetic diversity in certain species. European deer species, for instance, are inherently less genetically diverse than antelope.

“Small population sizes can result in inbreeding. In some animals, this can result in deformities such as a shorter lower jaw or calves born without eyes,” said Prof Zachos.

Tracing geographic origin

With information on the gene diversity of a population of animals, authorities can implement preventative measures to address inbreeding, e.g. building green bridges to connect populations.

Population/conservation genetics studies are also helpful to determine which animals from a certain population are native to a specific area. Prof Zachos was involved in a study for the Belgian government, tracing the geographic and genetic origin of the country’s red deer. 

He said the ideal is to have genetic information for every population for management applications. 

During his visit, Prof Zachos also visited the Doornkloof Nature Reserve, since he is co-supervising a PhD student in the UFS Department of Genetics, who is based at Doornkloof. 



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