Incorporating genetic data into conservation plans

Although evolutionary processes underpin the patterns of biodiversity we see, it is uncommon for resource managers to explicitly consider genetic data in conservation prioritization. Genetic information is inherently relevant to management because it describes genetic diversity, population connectedness, and evolutionary history. This provides valuable insights on behavioural traits, climate tolerance, evolutionary potential, and dispersal ability.

So, how can we better account for genetic information in conservation planning? Incorporating genetic information into spatial conservation prioritization starts with reconciling the terminology and techniques used in genetics and conservation science. Genetic data vary widely in analyses and their interpretations can be challenging even for experienced geneticists. Therefore, identifying objectives, decision rules, and implementations in decision support tools specifically for management using genetic data is challenging.

To help with this, Maria Beger and colleagues have outlined a framework for eight genetic system characteristics, their measurement, and how they could be incorporated in spatial conservation prioritization for two contrasting objectives: biodiversity preservation vs maintaining ecological function and sustainable use.

They illustrate how this framework might work with an example using data from the boring giant clam (Tridacna crocea) in the Coral Triangle. They found that many reefs highlighted as conservation priorities with genetic data based on genetic subregions, genetic diversity, genetic distinctness, and connectivity are not prioritized using standard practices. Moreover, different characteristics calculated from the same samples resulted in different spatial conservation priorities.

The results from this study highlight that omitting genetic information from conservation decisions may fail to adequately represent processes regulating biodiversity. However, they stress that conservation objectives related to the choice of genetic system characteristics require careful consideration.


Beger M, KA Selkoe, E Treml, PH Barber, S von der Heyden, ED Crandall, RJ Toonen and C Riginos (2014) Evolving coral reef conservation with genetic information. Bulletin of Marine Science 90: 159-185.

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