Genome study maps out optimistic future for California condors

Once driven to near extinction by hunting and habitat loss, the California condor appears to be making an impressive recovery. Numbers dwindled to just 22 animals in the wild 40 years ago, but today their number has grown to about 500. What’s more, a new study from UC Berkeley finds that the rebounded population exhibits high genetic diversity, a promising sign for its long-term survival. 

When numbers of species drop to extremely low levels, limited genetic diversity can make it harder for the species to grow in a healthy manner and adapt to environmental challenges. 

To come to their genetic diversity conclusion, the researchers compared the complete genomes of two California condors with those of an Andean condor and a turkey vulture. This is the first study to begin to quantify diversity across the entire California condor genome, and the researchers state that the continued diversity is likely due to the bird’s abundance in the past. 

Although the species is called the California condor, when estimating the condor’s historical population, the researchers found that the bird could likely be found across the entire US in numbers up to the tens of thousands a million years ago. 

These strong diversity findings are good news for the continued growth of healthy condor populations. Lead study author Jacqueline Robinson said, “[Condors] have this legacy of high genetic diversity from their former abundance, so I think there is a chance that we could manage the population going into the future to maintain the genetic diversity they have now and not have any further losses,” Robinson said.

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