One of the most iconic wild equids, the plains zebra occupies a broad region of sub-Saharan Africa and exhibits a wide range of phenotypic diversity in stripe patterns that have been used to classify multiple subspecies. After decades of relative stability, albeit with a loss of at least one recognized subspecies, the total population of plains zebras has undergone an approximate 25% decline since 2002. Individuals with abnormal stripe patterns have been recognized in recent years but the extent to which their appearance is related to demography and/or genetics is unclear. Investigating population genetic health and genetic structure are essential for developing effective strategies for plains zebra conservation. We collected DNA from 140 plains zebra, including seven with abnormal stripe patterns, from nine locations across the range of plains zebra, and analyzed data from restriction site-associated and whole genome sequencing (RAD-seq, WGS) libraries to better understand the relationships between population structure, genetic diversity, inbreeding, and abnormal phenotypes. We found that genetic structure did not coincide with described subspecific variation, but did distinguish geographic regions in which anthropogenic habitat fragmentation is associated with reduced gene flow and increased evidence of inbreeding, especially in certain parts of East Africa. Further, zebras with abnormal striping exhibited increased levels of inbreeding relative to normally striped individuals from the same populations. Our results point to a genetic cause of stripe pattern abnormalities, and dramatic evidence of the consequences of habitat fragmentation.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
- Equus quagga
- population genomics
- stripe pattern