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Evidence for African origins of founders of the Asiatic Lion Species Survival Plan

O'Brien, S. J.; Smith, G. L.; Wolfe, R.; Joslin, P.; Iii, G. L. Smith; Iii Wolfe, R.; Schaffer, N.; Heath, E.; Ott Joslin, J.; Rawal, P. P.; Bhattacharjee, K. K.; Martenson, J. S.

The Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) exists in the wild as a single relict population of approximately 250 individuals in the protected Gir Forest Sanctuary in western India. In 1981, a species survival plan (SSP) for the Asiatic lion was established by the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums to manage the 200 + descendants of Asiatic lions in captivity in western zoological facilities. This captive population was derived from seven founders. In order to compare the genetic structure of the Gir Forest population with that of the captive SSP population, a genetic survey of 46 electrophoretic allozyme systems resolved from extracts of lion blood was undertaken by using 29 SSP Asiatic lions and 28 wild-caught or captive-bred lions maintained at the Sakkarbaug Zoo in India but originally derived from the Gir Forest. The Gir lion population was found to be genetically monomorphic at each of 46 allozyme loci. This was in contrast to several African lion (Panthera leo leo) populations, which show moderate levels of allozyme variation at the same loci. The SSP lion population was polymorphic at three allozyme loci (IDHI, TF, and PTI) for alleles that were previously found only in African lion populations. Pedigree analysis of the genetic transmission of these three biochemical loci demonstrated that two of the five primary founder animals of the SSP Asiatic lion population (a breeding pair originally imported from the Trivandrum Zoo in southern India) were descendants of the African subspecies. Three other founder animals were pure Asian. A retrospective SSP pedigree analysis of two morphologic characters (prominent abdominal fold and pairing of infraorbital foramen) that are partially diagnostic for persica vs leo was consistent with this conclusion as well. The implications for the management of small captive populations of threatened species and of the Asiatic lion SSP population are discussed.

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