Join the SWINGER club: Scientists play wingman for endangered animals

The Running River rainbowfish – no longer #ForeverAlone(Credit: Steven Hume)

For lonely singles looking for love (or just plain sexy times), there are sites and apps such as eHarmony and Tinder. But what options do endangered animals looking for a prospective mate have? Well, thanks to a DNA matchmaking algorithm developed by scientists at Australia's Flinders University, solitary nights and inbreeding are no longer their only options.

Due to the polygamous nature of animals in the wild, it can be difficult keeping track of family relationships and maintaining genetic diversity. The latter is especially important as its evolutionary development is that which makes a species what it is. "It allows individuals of that species to survive, reproduce, and adapt to environmental changes," explains Prof. Luciano Beheregaray at Flinders.

For animals kept in zoos, this is not a huge problem since it is easy to observe and keep track of family relationships and parentage. However, maintaining genetic diversity is far trickier to achieve in the wild as most animals have multiple partners, often at the same time. Furthermore, dwindling populations often lead to inbreeding. So how can conservationists looking to practice captive breeding tell whether two animals from the same species are related? This is where DNA – and the SWINGER matchmaking algorithm – come in.

A tongue-in-cheek nod to the partner-swapping behavior of certain members of the human species as well as the polygamous nature of most wild animals, SWINGER is a matchmaking algorithm that uses DNA to work out otherwise unobservable family relationships, explains lead program developer Dr Jonathan Sandoval-Castillo. "[It] then takes this information and uses it to design breeding groups consisting of the least related individuals."

It is also recommended for use in cases where animals have been newly brought into captivity to start a breeding program. This is because without referring to their DNA, it is often hard to tell what their relationship is to each other.

Since developing the program, the researchers, working with Dr. Peter Unmack from the University of Canberra, have had their first success story with Running River rainbowfish, a rare lineage that is genetically and morphologically distinct from the other rainbowfish. Endemic to the North Queensland river that it is named for, it was until recently in danger of being wiped out by the invasive eastern rainbowfish species Melanotaenia splendida.

"The breeding groups have been highly successful, producing thousands of fingerlings that we have begun releasing to the wild. It is still a work in progress, but it is looking positive," says Unmack. "We and native fish aquarists continue to keep populations in captivity, just in case. But to truly preserve nature, we need to restore the fish in the wild."

Conservationists and biologists who would like to learn more about SWINGER can download it free of charge from www.molecularecology.flinders.edu.au.

A paper on the results of the algorithm was published in Molecular Ecology Resources.

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