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Study shows that Inbreeding helped African Mountain Gorillas Survive a Brush with Extinction

Destruction of natural habitat and hunting drove the African Mountain Gorilla to the brink of extinction. In 1981 there were just 253 surviving in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Preservation and breeding efforts have dramatically increased their numbers since then. It seems however, that nature had its own plan to increase the dwindling population of these magnificent African animals; inbreeding.

The fact that these gorillas are among the closes relatives of man means that they are among the most studies of all the wild primates. A recent study showed that the mountain gorillas are drastically inbred. Though inbreeding is widely discouraged, it is believed that it occurred due to the immediate threat of extinction. Findings were based on blood samples that were collected from seven mountain gorillas living among the forests in the volcanic mountain range known as Virunga.

While mountain gorillas have long been the subject of intense studies, this is the first time such an extensive, whole genome analysis has been done. Scientists say that they can now take genomes from all gorilla populations, including the mountain gorilla, and compare them. This will bring greater understanding of their differences, as well as their similarities, and what the genetic impact of such inbreeding might be.

This previously unknown aspect of gorilla behavior can also provide invaluable insight into how the apes, as well as their human cousins, might genetically adapt to living in sparse populations. This study was among the most extensive genetic review of these African animals to date and was analyzed by a team from multiple institutions. The team consisted of 23 authors hailing from 6 different countries. Inbreeding, whether in the wild or in captivity, is always worrisome, but in the case of the mountain gorillas it seems that they may have become more hardy due to the reduction of detrimental hereditary changes.

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