AN EVOLUTIONARY GENOMICS STUDY FOR CONSERVATION OF THE MONTEZUMA QUAIL
Humans have altered natural landscape since the agricultural revolution, but it has been most destructive since human globalization and rampant industrialization in the last two centuries. These activities deteriorate and fragments natural habitat of many wild species that creates small isolated populations that lose genetic diversity over time. Loss of genetic diversity reduces the adaptive capacity of a population to respond to future environmental change and increases their extinction risks. Implementing strategies for wildlife conservation is a challenge primarily because of our lack of understanding of the biology of many wild species, the risks they are currently facing, and their evolutionary histories. With the advent of genomic and computational techniques, it is now possible to address these concerns. In my research, I used genomics to study the evolutionary history of the Montezuma Quail (Cyrtonyx montezumae) and created monitoring tools that can be readily applied by wildlife managers for its conservation. Montezuma Quail is a small gamebird found mostly in Mexico with peripheral populations existing in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Montezuma Quail are going through species wide decline in the United States and are listed as vulnerable in the state of Texas due to their small population sizes and geographic isolation from rest of the range. My results show that Texas quail are genetically distinct and significantly less diverse than Arizona quail. Analysis of whole genome sequences from multiple individuals show that due to small population sizes and isolation, Texas quail are significantly more inbred and genetic drift is the major contributor for loss of genetic diversity we see today. Inbreeding is negatively impacting Texas quail as they carry more deleterious alleles within their genome that reduce fitness of the individuals. Demographic models predict that both Arizona and Texas populations were formed via founding bottlenecks around 20,000 years ago. Texas populations have maintained small population sizes since its split from the ancestral populations and are less efficient in purging new deleterious mutations that arise post-bottleneck. The inferences from my research not only carries direct implications for Montezuma Quail conservationists, but also illustrate the power of evolutionary genomics in implementing targeted management strategies for any species that face existential threats in today’s waning world.