Putting genetic biodiversity of wild species on the conservation agenda

We write regarding Tittensor et al’s1 evaluation of progress towards Convention on Biological Diversity Aichi 2020 biodiversity targets. Target 13 states “By 2020, the genetic diversity of cultivated plants and farmed and domesticated animals and of wild relatives, including other socio-economically as well as culturally valuable species, is maintained, and strategies have been developed and implemented for minimizing genetic erosion and safeguarding their genetic diversity.” We applaud the integration of genetic diversity into target-setting, but have two concerns regarding interpretation and implementation.


First, genetic diversity indicators are confined to domestic animal breeds in Tittensor et al., and generally in CBD commentary, but the Target also specifies socio-economically important and culturally valuable species. This encompasses exploited wild populations, species underpinning essential ecosystem services, and species driving other economic activities such as ecotourism. Overlooking wild species is concerning because genetic diversity enables species to persist and evolve in changing environments, contributes to resilient ecosystem services2,3, and modulates ecological processes such as nutrient and carbon cycling3. Moreover, interdependencies among species mean that safeguarding target species may require monitoring genetic diversity in others2.


Second, genetics of wild species is the only level of biodiversity widely omitted from high-level policy on biodiversity monitoring, despite abundant, well-developed genetic tools, theory, and growing reference databases. Though species- and ecosystem-level monitoring is better established, functional variation and evolutionary flexibility depend on genetic diversity3 and thus genetic assessment should therefore be afforded equal status. Genetic data are available for a plethora of animals, plants and microbes, including historical populations via museum and other archive collections4.


Genetic diversity assessment is ready for large-scale deployment, and can reveal otherwise unattainable information, such as past demographic change and ongoing local adaptation. Conservation geneticists can assist by furnishing data in consistent and useful formats, and helping identify key indicators and variables5.


  • Tittensor DP, Walpole M, Hill SLL et al (2014) A mid-term analysis of progress toward international biodiversity targets. Science 346: 241-244.
  • Hughes AR, Inouye BD, Johnson MTJ, et al (2008) Ecological consequences of genetic diversity. Ecology Letters 11: 609-623.
  • Whitham TG, DiFazio SP, Schweitzer JA (2008) Extending Genomics to Natural Communities and Ecosystems. Science 320: 492-495.
  • Shafer ABA, Wolf JBW, Alves PC et al (2014) Genomics and the challenging translation into conservation practice. Trends in Ecology and Evolution doi:10.1016/j.tree.2014.11.009
  • Pereira HM, Ferrier S, Walters M, et al (2013) Essential Biodiversity Variables. Science 339: 277 – 278.

Leave a Comment