Fishing in the gene pool
|By Frank, Matthew|
Conservation genetics yields new sculpin species in
One day last summer,
The woman at the counter asked LeMoine for the value of the contents. He hesitated, considering. "My trouble, ma'am," he remembers answering, "is that you don't know this, but this is a new species in this box, and I really have no idea what the value of it is."
"Five bucks to insure a new species," LeMoine says. "If only that would work in the real world."
In January, Zootaxa, a taxonomy journal, published LeMoine and his colleagues' description of the cedar sculpin, or Cottus schitsuumsh, which is found only in parts of the upper
The problem is that all sculpins look alike, to such a degree that biologists consider them one of the most difficult groups of freshwater fish to identify. LeMoine and his colleagues identified the cedar sculpin by scanning a short sequence of its DNA. In doing so, they demonstrated how this decade-old taxonomic tool, known as DNA barcoding, can help biologists discover new fish species - or distinct populations - within what was thought to be a single, undifferentiated species. The researchers, among the West's pioneers in the fastgrowing field of conservation genetics, in which genetics is applied to conservation biology, have already shown that there are probably even more new sculpin species out there - along with who knows what else.
By applying genetic techniques to fish and amphibians, says
Young, a fisheries biologist at the
Young and his colleagues started with sculpins because they presented a "target of opportunity" - since they're hard to distinguish with the naked eye, distinct species have probably been lumped together. Between 2008 and 2011, Young's team collected sculpins from 398 streams in northern
The most distinct, it appeared, was a sculpin found in
Young and fellow researchers are now applying DNA barcoding to other fish, such as the westslope cutthroat trout,
Once the trout's genetics are understood, Young says, it may be possible to help it cope with climate change. Genetically unique stocks of the fish would have different evolutionary histories; some may have been selected for dealing with warmer climates. "If we want to move some fish," he says, "those might be really good ones to move because they're likely to be more resilient to climate change than other forms that only deal with really cold environments."
Genetic sleuthing offers intriguing possibilities, but also underscores how much remains to be discovered. As freshwater biodiversity continues to decline, we're losing species we've never even named. ?
This reporting was supported by Science Source, a project of the
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