Genetic diversity of the Tibetan antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii) population of Ladakh, India, its relationship with other populations and conservation implications

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Background: The Tibetan antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii), or chiru, is an endangered antelope, distributed in China [Xinjiang, Xizang, Qinghai, Zhuolaihu Lake (Breeding habitat)], and India (Aksai Chin and Ladakh). There is a global demand for the species prized wool, which is used in weaving shahtoosh shawls. Over the years, the population of the Tibetan antelope has drastically declined from more than a million to a few thousand individuals, mainly due to poaching. Field studies undertaken in Ladakh, India also indicated winter migration of the population to Tibet. Migration between winter and calving habitats is well established to be female-biased across the Qinghai Tibetan Plateau (QTP). For effective conservation planning, genetic characterization is considered the best way to understand the likely impact of threats for ensuring the long-term viability of the population. In this regard, genetic characteristics of all Chinese populations are well-studied using mitochondrial and microsatellite markers, but information is lacking for the Indian population. Therefore, using the control region marker, we document for the first time the genetic variation of the Indian population of the Tibetan antelope, the extent of migration and its relationships with other populations of China. Results: The partial fragment of control region (259 bp) marker was successfully amplified in 30 Tibetan antelope samples that were collected from the Chang Chenmo Valley in eastern Ladakh, India. We also retrieved control region sequences (n = 88) available in the public domain from GenBank of different Chinese populations. Low levels of nucleotide (π; 0.004) and haplotype (hd; 0.543) diversity were observed in the Indian population when compared to Chinese populations (π = 0.01357-0.02048 and hd = 0.889-0.986). Commonly used indices (Tajima's D and Fu's Fs) were analyzed for inferring the demographic history of the Indian populations, and all values were negative indicating population expansion or demographic equilibrium, though nonsignificant. We observed five haplotypes in the Indian population, and these were not reported in previously studied populations of QTP. Bayesian-based phylogenetic analysis indicates the presence of four clades, however, the posterior probability support for three of these clades is weak (<0.5). Of these, the Indian population formed a distinct clade, whereas the Chinese populations exhibited shared haplotypes, and no geographic structure was observed. Median-joining network analysis was conducted for 46 haplotypes in the overall population, except the samples from India which showed a star-like topology. The Indian population is separated by one median vector from the Chinese population. Conclusions: The present study revealed the presence of different sub-clades in the Bayesian phylogenetic tree and five new haplotypes only in the Indian population or sampling location. Furthermore, in the phylogenetic tree, Indian haplotypes of Tibetan antelopes were clustered with the haplotype reported in the Chinese population of the Xinjiang region. Median-joining network analysis showed shared haplotypes pattern in all populations of QTP except the samples from India which showed new haplotypes. Given the presence of low nucleotide and haplotype diversity in eastern Ladakh populations and limited information available for populations of the western side in its range, we suggest to include genetic studies of Tibetan antelope populations around Aksai Chin (Fig. 1) under the proposed transboundary agenda between India and China and assess relationships with other populations. Such understanding would enable the planning of conservation strategies for ensuring long-term survival of westernmost populations in its range, and if required, it would establish connectivity with the other populations.




Ahmad, K., Kumar, V. P., Joshi, B. D., Raza, M., Nigam, P., Khan, A. A., & Goyal, S. P. (2016). Genetic diversity of the Tibetan antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii) population of Ladakh, India, its relationship with other populations and conservation implications. BMC Research Notes, 9(1).

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