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American Bison Restoration as a Model for the Propagation of African Wildlife Populations . James Derr College of Veterinary Medicine Texas A&M University. An Overview of Today’s Seminar. A short discussion of our 10 years of genetics research with American bison.

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american bison restoration as a model for the propagation of african wildlife populations

American Bison Restoration as a Model for the Propagation of African Wildlife Populations 

James Derr

College of Veterinary Medicine

Texas A&M University

an overview of today s seminar
An Overview of Today’s Seminar
  • A short discussion of our 10 years of genetics research with American bison.
    • Objectives, results and important findings
    • Current and future research with American bison
  • Using these bison studies as a model for the conservation African wildlife species
    • Systematic collection of DNA and health/location/carcass trait information from hunter killed animals in Africa
    • Developing high resolution genetic technologies, using the bison model and with knowledge from recent genome sequencing projects, for selected African wildlife species
the bison conservation genetics program at texas a m university

Dr. Todd Ward

Dr. Robert Schnabel

Dr. Natalie Halbert

Dr. Chris Seabury

Dr. Joe Templeton

Dr. Don Davis

Dr. Loren Skow

Dr. Bhanu Chowdhary

Dr. Jim Womack

Dr. William Grant

Dr. Ron Heibert

Dr. Peter Gogan

Dr. David Hunter

Danny Sweptson

Claire Kolenda

Federal and private bison managers, owners and biologist

Funding Agencies:

Texas A&M University

Texas Agriculture Experiment Station

The Nature Conservancy

US Department of the Interior

- National Parks Service

- US Fish and Wildlife Service

Canadian Park Service

National Science Foundation

Texas Parks and Wildlife

Turner Foundation

Private bison owners

The Bison Conservation Genetics Program at Texas A&M University
bison as a conservation model for genetic survival
Bison as a Conservation Model for Genetic Survival

For many, conservation biology is often considered a “crisis discipline” because many of the species that are of interest are critically threatened in some way.

Clearly, the recovery of North American bison is one of the best documented success stories in conservation biology.

About 10 years ago we started a NSF funded study of bison conservation genetics. The objectives were to uncover why the bison recovery was so successful and to develop models for the conservation of other large mammals; specifically large African wildlife species.

just to quickly review american bison history
Just to quickly review American Bison history
  • Bison suffered a well documented population decline that between 1840 to 1905.
  • Population numbers were reduced from millions to a few hundred animals distributed across North America.
  • Although most of the blame for this tragedy falls on hunters , a number of other explanations are available.
  • An analysis of the fossil record also suggest that bison may have gone through a number of historical bottlenecks.

However, modern bison appear to be relatively free of the inbreeding depression and other fitness related problems usually associated with severe population bottlenecks. Why?

the great recovery foundation plains bison herds 1888 1905

The Great RecoveryFoundation Plains Bison Herds (1888 - 1905)

James McKay / William Alloway Herd - Canada

Walking Coyote (Pablo / Allard Herd) - Montana

Frederick Dupree - South Dakota

Charles (Buffalo) Jones - Kansas

Charles Goodnight - Texas

(Some of these herds were used to produce a few hybrids between bison and beef cattle to “improve” disease resistance and possible energy conversion in beef cattle.)

(The hybridization experiments worked…. improving beef cattle ideas did not.)

In addition, a few “wild” animals (22 - 25) remained in Yellowstone National Park.


Bison Populations: 1888




Walking Coyote-Pablo-Allard






Historic bison range:

1600s – 1700s

Bronx Zoo

Charles “Buffalo” Jones





*From Coder 1975, derived from Hornaday

success of the the great bison recovery
Success of the “The Great Bison Recovery”
  • Plains bison numbered over 5000 by the middle 1930s and they were considered by the American Bison Society as “out of danger of extinction”
  • Current NA bison census: ~500,000 animals
  • Most bison are in private herds
    • In some cases they are artificially selected for size, growth rate, behavior, less hump, more rump, etc
    • Most screened private herd have cattle introgression
  • <20,000 bison maintained by US & Canadian governments
    • Different goals than private herds
    • Most likely an important source of non-hybridized bison that can be maintained for future generations
public bison populations sampled for genetic studies
State & Private Herds

Antelope Island State Park, UT

Henry Mountains, UT

Custer State Park, SD

Finney Game Refuge, KS

Maxwell Game Refuge, KS

Texas State Bison Herd, TX

Santa Catalina Island, CA

Nature Conservancy herds

More than 100 private bison herds

Federal Herds

Wichita Mtns. NWR

Ft. Niobrara NWR

National Bison Range NWR

Neal Smith NWR

Sully’s Hill National Preserve

Badlands NP

Theodore Roosevelt NP

Wind Cave NP

Grand Teton NP

Yellowstone NP

Wood Buffalo NP (Can.)

Elk island NP (Can.)

Mackenzie Sanctuary (Can.)

Public Bison Populations Sampled for Genetic Studies

To date, archived over 15,000 bison DNA samples

deliverables from these genetic studies with bison 20 scientific publications
Deliverables from these genetic studies with bison(>20 scientific publications)
  • Technology from the cattle genome sequencing and gene mapping efforts:
    • Compare levels of genetic diversity among populations
      • inbreeding depression, hidden population subdivision, disease resistance genes
    • Establish genetic relationships between populations
      • Confirm population histories, identify unique lineages
    • Use as platform to investigate management strategies
      • Effect of culling, skewed sex ratios, small population sizes, herd reduction
    • Determine parentage in small and large populations
      • Multiple sire private herds, whole herd pedigree development
    • Test for mitochondrial and nuclear bison-domestic cattle introgression bison herds.
      • Most bison herds have evidence of domestic cattle hybridization
why is this level of technology needed to help manage bison populations
Unlike other smaller wildlife species, we must:

Cull (selectively remove) animals from herds

Manipulate sex ratios

Deal with disease issues

In some cases they are economically important

This sounds a lot like many African plains game and big game wildlife species…

Why is this level of technology needed to help manage bison populations?

Diane Hargraves

hybrids happen
Hybrids Happen…

Some bison just look different?


So, why have bison recovered, with no or few apparent genetic consequences from this major population crash, when most other species, faced with this degree of insult, seem to suffer through long-term problems and/or became extinct?

There are multiple explanations:

  • Previous (historic) population declines and near extinction events have purged bison genomes of many deleterious alleles.
  • Following the bottleneck on the late 1800s, surviving bison were found in isolated populations that encompassed a high frequency of the overall (pre-bottleneck) genetic variation.
  • Bison that survived the bottleneck retained genetic adaptability at important genes that influence fitness (the luck hypothesis).
  • Surviving bison population encountered an influx of new genetic variation at the apex of this bottleneck (hybridization with domestic cattle).

These studies of American Bison are the most comprehensive genetics investigations of any wildlife species

Now is the time to expand the use of genomics technologies African big game wildlife species


Opportunities for using genetic technologies to insure healthy and robust African wildlife populations that thrive and provide sustain trophy hunting into the future

  • I am proposing two overall objectives:
    • It is absolutely imperative to develop a systematic plan for collecting information from as many hunter killed wildlife species as possible. This should include high quality DNA samples, GPS location, disease / parasite status, age, sex, body conformation, etc. These effort should be internationally coordinated.
    • Based on the tremendous opportunities through the genome sequencing projects of economically important and/or domesticated animals such as: cattle, house cats, horse and dogs, now is the time to develop novel and powerful genetic technologies for the conservation of related wildlife species.
information and biological material from hunter killed big game species
Information and biological material from hunter killed big game species
  • Organized “in country” through safari outfitters, professional hunters, conservation organizations and governmental wildlife agencies
    • Information could include:
      • Specific details about that animal on a single necropsy / specimen data sheet
    • Biological materials should include:
      • For DNA archiving
        • Whole blood sample on a Whatman FTA card
        • Hair follicle samples

Also, for genetically important animals, sterile tissue samples placed in media as a secondary source of DNA and possibly future nuclear transplantation

(as discussed yesterday by Dr. Paul Bartels from the National Zoological Gardens in South Africa)


Return to:________________________________________________________________________

Please complete all of the fields possible or applicable

Species/common name ____________________ Sex ______ Age ______ Date/time ___________

Country _______________ State/Providence _________________ Nearest city ________________

Name of park/property ___________________________ Specimen field number ______________

GPS position ________________ Collector/Hunter name _________________________________

Collector/hunter email address ____ ___________________________________ Method _________

Pharmaceutical and dose _________________________________________ Digital photo(s) _____

Professional hunter/outfitters name/contact information ___________________________________


Samples Taken:

Blood: FTA card ______ Other blood sampled ____________

Tissue: Hair sample _____

Sterile tissue sample in media (skin) ______ (lung) ______ other _______________________

Pregnant female ____ Abort ____Sex ____Collection of/from fetus _____

Remarks _________________________________________________________________________


Total length of body (tip of nose to tip of tail) _______________ Head length _______________

Tail length ____________ Height at shoulder ___________ Teeth wear/condition ____________

Horns/Tusk: length right _________ left _________ Rhino: front __________ back _________

Spread-max ________ At t ip _________ Weight: live weight ________ field dressed ________

Overall impression of body condition ________________________________________________

Kidney fat (none – s mall – large - excessive) Back fat (none – small – large - excessive)

External parasites (Type & Site) ____________________________________________________

Internal parasites (Type & Site) _____________________________________________________

Additional Remarks/Concerns/Information _____________________________________________



biological material collection whole blood on fta cards
Biological material collection – whole blood on FTA cards

FTA cards are a safe and fast media

for saving DNA samples from

whole blood.

fta cards for whole blood
FTA cards for whole blood

Must setup and allow to dry.

After they are dry they can be kept at room

temperature for decades and will still provide excellent DNA.

however there are serious export import issues with any biological samples for scientific analyses
However there are serious export/import issues with any biological samples for scientific analyses….
  • USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
  • US Fish & Wildlife Service
  • US Public Health Service
  • US Food and Drug Administration
  • US Customs Service
  • Possibly local and state health departments
  • Potentially international agencies and organizations
  • Also possible legal considerations with:
    • The Lacey Act
    • Endangered Species Act
    • African Elephant Conservation Act
    • Rhinoceros and [Tiger] Conservation Act
  • Almost certainly in country agencies/organizations

All of these agencies and regulations can be dealt with but

it is time consuming and in some cases expensive.

Develop molecular technologies based on genome sequencing projects from closely related domestic species here in the US (Texas A&M University) using DNA samples from African species that are already here in private holdings or zoos.

Transfer the application of this technology to existing laboratories in Africa such a such as those at the Faculty of Veterinary Science Onderstepoort, SA, the National Zoological Gardens or the Hans Hoheisen laboratories in Kruger National Park

In the event that it is absolutely required to import DNA samples, these permits can and will be obtained.However, one solution could be to use established collection facilities in Africa for genetic samples.

dna collection and storage research analysis actionable results
DNA collection and storage - Research - Analysis – Actionable results
  • Developing these advanced genetic technologies through research in the US and then transferring the resulting knowledge, reagents, capabilities to outside laboratories could help simplify many of the legal issues with samples and in power education and research infrastructure in Africa.
the facilities at kruger national park hans hoheisen offices laboratories and holding pens
The Facilities at Kruger National Park: Hans Hoheisen offices, laboratories and holding pens
the african wildlife genome based research at texas a m university
My laboratory is includes modern molecular biology and DNA sequencing and genotyping core facility making it completely equipped to develop genomic technologies for any other wildlife species.

Initial Studies. Concentrating on two or three important African species, lions (Pantheraleo), buffaloes (Synceruscaffe), and possibly white (Ceretotherium simum) and black rhinos (Diceros bivornis) we propose to develop the primary resources and methodology to allow for modern molecular genetic investigation for these and other related species.

The African Wildlife Genome based research at Texas A&M University
deliverables from these initial studies
Deliverables from these initial studies
  • These genomic technologies will allow for much of the same types of investigations as reported earlier with American bison.

High resolution microsatellite markers, single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) based on microarray technologies and mitochondrial DNA sequencing and haplotyping.

    • Gene mapping studies for genetic traits of interest (body size, disease resistance, behavior, etc.)
    • Population genetic parameters (inbreeding, genetic diversity, geographic differences, etc).
    • Forensics technologies for species identification and DNA fingerprinting for individual animals.
    • Genetic integrity studies and the identification of hybridization between species or subspecies.
    • Identification of important individual animals for future nuclear transfer efforts in the event it is necessary to recover lost genetic diversity using cloning technologies.
    • Help reestablish wildlife populations in regions where game have been completely exterminated (Wildlife as an Economic Engine).


dream no little dreams for they have no magic to move men s souls

“Dream no little dreams for they have no magic to move men’s souls”

Dr. Norman Borlaug

Winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize for Peace and fellow Texas A&M Professor

funding for these efforts
Funding for these efforts
  • Dallas Safari Club has provide initial funding to help get this effort started
  • The SCI foundation has asked for a full proposal in March
  • Looking to local chapters help inform their members and for support
  • Other wildlife conservation associations
  • US and international funding agencies
  • College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University
  • Dallas Safari Club
    • Dr. J. Lane Easter, Mr. Nigel Theisen, Mr. John Lochow and Mr. Gray Thornton
  • The Safari Club International and the Safari Club International Foundation for the opportunity to give this presentation and for considering proposals to conduct this work.
contact information
Contact information

James Derr, Professor

College of Veterinary Medicine

Texas A&M University

College Station, TX 77845

This complete PowerPoint presentation is available at my faculty website