February 20, 1997
GENETIC DIVERSITY STUDY OF WILDLIFE TO BEGIN IN ACADIA PARK
BAR HARBOR -- Acadia National Park has been awarded funding
for a pioneering genetic diversity study of resident beaver and
spruce grouse populations to be conducted by researchers from The
Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor and the federal Cooperative Park
Studies Unit at the University of Maine in Orono.
Utilizing the genetics research expertise of The Jackson
Laboratory, the scientists will develop a cost-efficient method
for evaluating genetic diversity in the Park's wildlife
populations, which are located primarily on Mount Desert Island.
Some of the populations, which are restricted to small and
isolated patches of suitable habitat, may be more susceptible to
loss of genetic diversity through inbreeding and other factors.
This can result in lowered fertility, high infant mortality, and
less adaptability to environmental change.
"Habitat fragmentation is a leading cause of
environmental degradation and a threat to biodiversity,"
said Paul Haertel, Superintendent of Acadia National Park.
"This funding will enable us to better understand how
habitat fragmentation may be affecting genetic diversity and the
long-term viability of these two species. Results of this study
will also serve to guide our future conservation
The 16-month, $55,000 Acadia study will be led by Dr. Beverly
Paigen -- a Senior Staff Scientist at The Jackson Laboratory who
will direct the genetic biodiversity evaluation of the animals --
and by research wildlife biologist Dr. Allan O'Connell, leader of
the University of Maine-based Cooperative Park Studies Unit,
Biological Resources Division, United States Geological Survey.
"Beaver and spruce grouse were chosen for the study
because they are not endangered but are declining on Mount Desert
Island," said Dr. Paigen. "We need genetic, as well as
demographic, information to accurately assess that decline."
Recent demographic studies confirm that the resident beaver
population has declined by 60 percent in the last 15 years.
Anecdotal data suggest the native beaver population was killed
off in the 1800s, and the current animals are descended from two
or three pairs later introduced from the Mid-Atlantic states. The
spruce grouse population comprises less than 100 individuals, and
productivity is low, with breeding restricted to 18 discrete
patches of black spruce and tamarack (American larch) forest.
The project's field phase, expected to begin by April 1, will
be directed by Dr. O'Connell. He will be assisted by two science
students from Brewer High School in Brewer, Maine, in live
trapping the animals and collecting samples for genetic analysis.
Forty animals from each species will be studied: 20 from the Park
and 20 control animals from the mainland. All animals will be
safely released into their native habitats.
In Fall 1997, Dr. Paigen -- assisted by researcher Karen
Svenson and a science intern from Mount Desert Island High School
-- will begin the laboratory phase of the project. Dr. Paigen, a
prominent genetics researcher, specializes in using mouse models
engineered at The Jackson Laboratory to identify genetic causes
of human health concerns such as atherosclerosis, gallstones, and
The cost-saving core of the research plan is to utilize an
existing archive of more than 2,000 "genetic markers"
in mice that have already been identified as part of the campaign
to map the human genome. Each of these marker genes permits quick
identification of characteristic DNA sequences known as
"simple sequence-length polymorphic repeats" which are
present in most mammals. Dr. Paigen has confirmed in ongoing
research involving the black rhinoceros that 5 to 10 percent of
the mouse markers are valid for assessing genetic diversity in
that endangered species.
Similar success using existing mouse markers is anticipated in
the study of beavers and spruce grouse in Acadia. Once genetic
diversity has been calculated in the resident animals and
mainland controls, the two sets can be compared to see if
inbreeding threatens genetic health among the Island populations.
"Our goal is to protect the biodiversity of the Park,"
said Dr. O'Connell. "With the results of this study, we will
be able to develop appropriate conservation strategies if we find
that these species are seriously inbred."
The Acadia study is one of 13 projects nationwide chosen
competitively for the 1997 "Expedition Into The Parks"
conservation program, funded by a $1 million contribution from
Canon U.S.A., Inc., through the National Park Foundation (NPF).
The program -- part of Canon's "Clean Earth Campaign"
-- brings National Park Service staff, researchers, and
volunteers together to collect data for resource protection
through wildlife monitoring, habitat mapping, flora/fauna
sampling, photographic surveys, and conservation and restoration
The $50,000 Canon/NPF grant will be augmented by $5,000 from
Friends of Acadia, a Bar Harbor-based non-profit dedicated to
protecting and preserving the Park and surrounding communities.
About $15,000 of the Acadia funding is earmarked for
"The National Park Foundation is proud to support this
innovative project that promises lasting scientific and
educational value," said NPF President Jim Maddy. "We
are especially pleased that the genetic methods used at Acadia
may be applicable in other parks and that the project is forging
important links with local communities.
The above story is based on materials provided by The Jackson Laboratory. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
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