Learning about “Soemmies”

Genetic studies revealed useful information about our founder herds of "Soemmies."

Genetic studies revealed useful information about our founder herds of “Soemmies.”

When I was 14, I read an article in ZOONOOZ (San Diego Zoo Global’s member magazine) that highlighted a few conservation projects that were being carried out at the Institute for Conservation Research. From that point onward, I was hooked on conservation biology. When I was in high school, I participated in Zoo InternQuest, which solidified my interest in the Zoo’s mission and introduced me to the idea of using genetics for conservation purposes. Today, I am a fourth year conservation biology major at the University of California, Davis.

This past summer, I was ecstatic when I was chosen as a Summer Research Fellow in the Genetics Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. For 12 weeks I worked closely with my mentor, Cynthia Steiner, Ph.D., on a research project involving Soemmerring’s gazelles. Before starting my project, I had never heard of this species, but I quickly learned everything there is to know about the “Soemmies,” from their physical characteristics right down to their DNA.

Natalie meets a Soemmie up close.

Natalie meets a Soemmie up close.

We were interested in this species because they are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and are thus part of a breeding program at San Diego Zoo Global. Soemmerring’s gazelles also have very high levels of perinatal mortality (death at 0 to 1 month) in managed care. Little was known about the original population of Soemmies at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park, so one goal of my project was to use genetics to find out more about the founders that started the breeding program. Knowledge on founders, in terms of relatedness and population structure, is really important, since those are the individuals that build the genetic potential of the whole captive population to come. My project addressed genetic variation among founders and its potential correlation with perinatal mortality in captivity.

This summer I did genotyping and sequenced DNA from all founders. I discovered that there were two distinct groups among the founders, separated by where they originated. I also found that one group of founders was strongly related to one another, generating an overall highly inbred starting population. Statistical analysis showed that relatedness of the parents had a strong correlation with mortality of the offspring. Knowing this information is very useful to the breeding program and could possibly help future breeding decisions about designating breeding pairs.

This fellowship program has been truly life changing! The entire Institute for Conservation Research staff was so welcoming, and I learned more than I ever could have learned by sitting in a classroom. Some highlights of my experience include meeting my generous donors, Dr. Frederick Frye and his wife, Joy, at my presentation, and also meeting the Soemmerring’s gazelles face to face and knowing that I spent my summer helping to conserve this beautiful species. I will never forget this experience, and I know that I will benefit from the skills I have learned for many years to come.

Natalie Goddard is the 2013 Summer Intern at the Genetics Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Good luck to you, Natalie, and thank you for your hard work!