Scientists battle to save iconic Arabian oryx •


The Arabian oryx is an iconic antelope species native to the desert and steppe areas of the Arabian Peninsula. It is the national animal of Jordan, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar. Although a revered and admired species and a cultural symbol in the Gulf region, it became extinct in the wild in 1972 as a result of hunting and poaching. Fortunately, many individuals were held in captivity in zoos and private collections, and the success of captive breeding programs meant that small herds could be reintroduced into the wild.

In early 1982, the first herd was ‘feralized’ in a desert area in central Oman, and today feral populations totaling 1,200 animals exist in several locations, primarily in the Arabian Peninsula. The Arabian oryx is the first animal species to be reclassified by the IUCN as “vulnerable” after being declared extinct in the wild. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the species continues to face a high risk of extinction in the wild. Despite this, there are no formal breeding strategies in place to ensure the genetic diversity of the remaining herds.

To address this important issue, Professor Jaime Gongora from the University of Sydney, and his former PhD student Qais Al Rawahi and colleagues, conducted the first genomic analysis of Arabian oryx to assess their genetic diversity and propose results-based breeding strategies.

“There is more to the preservation of the Arabian oryx than conservation,” Prof Gongora said. “Historically and now, it has strong cultural significance in the Arabian Peninsula due to its unique physical characteristics and strength, allowing it to live in harsh desert environments. He even became a national icon in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. That’s why we work so hard to ensure its survival – for the oryx itself and to keep this cultural bond alive.

Arabian oryx are remarkable animals due to their ability to survive in the hot and dry desert environments where they are found. They can reduce their water loss through urine, feces and metabolic processes by up to 50% under dry conditions and have special anatomical features to keep the brain cool, even though body temperature can exceed the normal.

These antelopes can travel 75 km a day, in search of food, and are known for their “sixth sense”: they can sense the location of incoming rain and move there to drink, as well as consume growing plants. in wetter conditions, such as acacias. . With a lifespan of between 15 and 20 years, they are an essential food source for other species in the Arabian Peninsula, including striped hyenas, Arabian wolves and lynx.

Researchers tested the DNA of 138 Arabian oryx at Al-Wusta Wildlife Sanctuary in Oman, where there is a herd of around 600 individuals. They compared the results to 36 historical DNA samples from the Phoenix Zoo, taken from the offspring of a herd established there in the 1970s. Experts studied mitochondrial DNA inherited from the mother and single nucleotide polymorphisms biparentally inherited – genetic variations used to identify species.

The results showed that the current Arabian oryx gene pool is reasonably diverse, despite the fact that there have been no coordinated breeding programs to encourage genetic diversity. In fact, at 58% of total diversity, the current sample was more genetically diverse than historical samples. This is hardly surprising since the original Phoenix Zoo herd consisted of only nine individuals.

“This means that conservation strategies based on random mating could be reasonably effective,” said the study’s lead author, Professor Gongora. “This work on such an iconic species could serve as a benchmark for the long-term sustainability of other conservation programs. This includes those taking place in the Al-Wusta Wildlife Reserve involving the sand gazelle, mountain gazelle and Nubian ibex.

The research identified the DNA of three ancestral groups among the oryx sampled, but their genes were not evenly distributed in the current herds at the wildlife reserve. Based on this, the authors suggest a targeted breeding strategy in which females should breed with males from other genetic lines. “To ensure the survival of the species, it’s not just about population size – it’s about genetic diversity,” Gongora pointed out.

Along with his colleagues, Professor Gongora is working with the Al-Wusta Wildlife Reserve to implement this strategy. The researchers also recommend that Arabian oryx genetic samples be stored in a biobank for future genetic analysis. Moreover, the biobank of ova and sperm samples could also be considered as a long-term insurance policy against the extinction of this species.

The study is published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

By Alison Bosman, Personal editor


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