Thursday, October 2, 2014

Barcoding a zoo

Meet Marla, a wood bison (Bison bison athabascae) calf born 2012 in the Munich Zoo Hellabrunn. Soon after the birthday veterinarians took blood samples for a standard check up. Today, two years later, Marla has already moved to a different zoo in Germany (Leipzig) and grown quite a bit. However, her blood sample is making headlines in the German press as it represents the first of a new project run out of the Zoological State Collection in Munich.

The colleagues are planning to generate DNA Barcodes for all 700 species of the Zoo Hellabrunn within the coming months. This would be the first zoo in the world with a fully barcoded animal population. My hope is that many will follow this example. These institutions are often home to species that are extremely difficult to encounter or are part of the illegal trade. The quality of documentation can rival that of a musuem collection which might be a perfect place to expand the reference library. Zoo animals are continously monitored and controlled by veterinary which means DNA samples are always available through blood tests, hair samples, feathers, or feces.

The researchers hope that DNA Barcoding can help to make reliable subspecies assignments as this is in some mammalian groups the only way to confirm its origin. That in turn would support conservation breeding programs. The scientists at the Zoological State Collection sees this project as a contribution to fight illegal poaching and international trafficking in endangered species. Building a reference library with the help of zoos could aid future DNA-based customs control.

Once this project is finished the colleagues are thinking of cataloging the parasites of a variety of zoo and pet animals to provide veterinary science with a reliable and easy-to-use identification system. 

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