Yellowstone wolf study reveals support for the monoculture theory

Jan. 29, 2021

study of wolves that were re-introduced to Yellowstone National Park suggests that a phenomenon known in agriculture as the “monoculture effect” may apply to wildlife populations also.

The theory suggests that individual organisms and populations with greater genetic diversity are better equipped to resist disease and more apt to survive disease outbreaks when they occur. Its applicability is well established in farm settings but less supported among animals.

Before wolves were brought back to Yellowstone in the mid-1990s, they were vaccinated for common diseases and treated for any parasite infections they already carried. The first few generations of wolves were relatively disease-free. Over the years, however, various diseases have found their way into the population including mange, which is caused by mites. 

The researchers combined 25 years of wolf observational data with the genetic samples of 408 individual wolves and found that mange was much more severe in wolves that had less genetic variation.

“Genetics provide us with a really powerful tool for understanding wildlife health and conserving at-risk species,” said graduate student Alexandra DeCandia, who led the Yellowstone wolf study. “We can learn more about the causes of disease, the short- and long-term effects on individual animals and populations, and how best to respond as wildlife biologists and managers.”

The study also has implications for understanding disease in general. “For widespread diseases like mange, we can even gain insights into common processes that affect other host species — including our own — for a larger-scale ‘One Health’ perspective that ultimately improves both human and wildlife health,” said DeCandia.

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