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Science Saturday Small gene pool puts Alpine ibex at risk

Two ibex locking horns

Still locked in a struggle for survival: Alpine ibex

(© Keystone / Gian Ehrenzeller)

Alpine ibex are still at risk of extinction despite their “least concern” conservation status.

Harmful genetic mutations and a lack of genetic diversity pose a danger to ibex, even if the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)external link classifies the species as “least concern” in terms of the threat of extinction. 

“The risk of extinction cannot be ruled out based on having the minimum number of individuals supposedly sufficient for propagating the species,” say biologists from the University of Neuchâtel (UniNE). Their report was published in the journal Nature Communicationsexternal link on Friday.

“Our findings highlight that even populations of ~1000 individuals can accumulate mildly deleterious mutations. Conservation efforts should focus on preventing population declines below such levels to ensure long-term survival of species,” wrote the UniNE scientists.

Alpine ibex were nearly hunted to extinction in the 19th century. Today there are about 50,000 living in the Alps thanks to efforts to establish new colonies. However, the animals are closely related, and the lack of genetic diversity can make a species particularly vulnerable to disease.

“The population bottleneck of Alpine ibex is among the most dramatic recorded for any successfully restored species,” noted the Swiss researchers.

Alpine ibex In the thrall of the mountain king

Once extinct in Switzerland, the ibex is back. Thousands of the surefooted creatures now live in the Swiss Alps.


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