Utilizing the genetics research expertise of The Jackson Laboratory, the scientists will develop a cost-efficient method for evaluating genetic diversity in the Park's wildlife populations, which are located primarily on Mount Desert Island. Some of the populations, which are restricted to small and isolated patches of suitable habitat, may be susceptible to loss of genetic diversity through inbreeding and other factors. This can result in lowered fertility, high infant mortality, and less adaptability to environmental change.
"Habitat fragmentation is a leading cause of environmental degradation and a threat to biodiversity," said Paul Haertel, Superintendent of Acadia National Park. "This funding will enable us to better understand how habitat fragmentation may be affecting genetic diversity and the long-term viability of these two species. Results of this study will also serve to guide our future conservation strategies."
The 16-month Acadia project will be led by Dr. Beverly Paigen -- a Senior Staff Scientist at The Jackson Laboratory who will direct the genetic biodiversity evaluation of the animals -- and by research wildlife biologist Dr. Allan O'Connell, leader of the University of Maine-based Cooperative Park Studies Unit, Biological Resources Division, U.S. Geological Survey.
"Beaver and spruce grouse were chosen for the study because they are not endangered but are declining on Mount Desert Island," said Dr. Paigen. "We need genetic, as well as demographic, information to accurately assess that decline."
Recent demographic studies confirm that the resident beaver population has declined by 60 percent in the last 15 years. Anecdotal data suggest the native beaver population was killed off in the 1800s, and the current animals are descended from two or three pairs later introduced from the Mid-Atlantic states. The spruce grouse population comprises less than 100 individuals, and productivity is low, with breeding restricted to 18 discrete patches of black spruce and tamarack (American larch) forest.
The project's field phase, expected to begin by April 1, will be directed by Dr. O'Connell. He will be assisted by two science students from Brewer High School in Brewer, Maine, in live trapping the animals and collecting samples for genetic analysis. Forty animals from each species will be studied: 20 from the Park and 20 control animals from the mainland. All animals will be safely released into their native habitats.
In Fall 1997, Dr. Paigen -- assisted by researcher Karen Svenson and a science intern from Mount Desert Island High School -- will begin the laboratory phase of the project. Dr. Paigen, a prominent genetics researcher, specializes in using mouse models engineered at The Jackson Laboratory to identify genetic causes of human health concerns such as atherosclerosis, gallstones, and obesity.
The cost-saving core of the research plan is to utilize an existing archive of more than 2,000 "genetic markers" in mice that have already been identified as part of the campaign to map the human genome. Each of these marker genes permits quick identification of characteristic DNA sequences known as "simple sequence-length polymorphic repeats" which are present in most mammals. Dr. Paigen has confirmed in ongoing research involving the black rhinoceros that 5 to 10 percent of the mouse markers are valid for assessing genetic diversity in that endangered species.
Similar success using existing mouse markers is anticipated in the study of beavers and spruce grouse in Acadia. Once genetic diversity has been calculated in the resident animals and mainland controls, the two sets can be compared to see if inbreeding threatens genetic health among the Island populations.
"Our goal is to protect the biodiversity of the Park," said Dr. O'Connell. "With the results of this study, we will be able to develop appropriate conservation strategies if we find that these species are seriously inbred."
The Acadia study is one of 13 projects nationwide chosen competitively for the 1997 "Expedition Into The Parks" conservation program, funded by a $1 million contribution from Canon U.S.A., Inc., through the National Park Foundation (NPF). The program -- part of Canon's "Clean Earth Campaign" -- brings National Park Service staff, researchers, and volunteers together to collect data for resource protection through wildlife monitoring, habitat mapping, flora/fauna sampling, photographic surveys, and conservation and restoration work.
The $50,000 Canon/NPF grant will be augmented by $5,000 from Friends of Acadia, a Bar Harbor-based non-profit dedicated to protecting and preserving the Park and surrounding communities. About $15,000 of the Acadia funding is earmarked for environmental education.