Scientists ensure survival of Arabian oryx

Team in Australia have decoded the DNA of the Arabian oryx to protect its survival

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An international team led by the University of Sydney has undertaken a project to decode the DNA of the Arabian oryx, in a world first.

The team aims to ensure the survival of the species by using the genetic data to design breeding programmes in close collaboration with a conservation programme in Oman.

The Arabian oryx became extinct in the wild in 1972 because of hunting and poaching. But it continued to exist in captivity through breeding programmes, including in the UAE, and by private collectors in Saudi Arabia.

UAE Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, ordered the establishment of a captive breeding programme for the endangered Arabian oryx in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, 1968.

In 1978 two male and two female Arabian oryx were transferred from Al Ain to Sir Bani Yas Island, now home to a thriving number of oryx.

Sheikh Zayed’s programme led to Arabian oryx being released inside and outside the UAE, now overseen by the Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Arabian Oryx Reintroduction Programnme.

It was the first animal to be rescued from extinction in the wild and remains a cultural and national symbol in the Gulf region.

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species says the Arabian oryx continues to face a high risk of extinction in the wild.

But in Sydney, Prof Jaime Gongora, his former PhD student Qais Al Rawahi, and his colleagues decided to address this by analysing the population’s DNA and proposing breeding strategies based on the results.

Their study on this has been published in Royal Society Open Science.

Arabian oryx from UAE settle into new Jordan home

Arabian oryx from UAE settle into new Jordan home

“There is more to the preservation of the Arabian oryx than conservation,” Prof Gongora said.

“Historically and now, it has strong cultural significance in the Arabian Peninsula due to its unique physical features and strength, enabling it to live in harsh desert environments.

"It has even become a national icon in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. That’s why we are working so hard to ensure it survives – for the oryx itself and to keep this cultural connection alive.

“This work ... could serve as a benchmark for the long-term sustainability of other conservation programmes.

"This includes those taking place at [Oman's] Al Wusta Wildlife Reserve involving the sand gazelle, the mountain gazelle and the Nubian ibex.”

Arabian oryx are unique animals distinguished by the length of their horns, which can grow up to one metre.

They can travel 75 kilometres a day searching for food, and are known for sensing the location of coming rain, towards which they travel to drink. They also consume plants that thrive in moister conditions, such as acacias.

They have a lifespan of between 15 and 20 years and are a key food source for other species on the Arabian Peninsula including striped hyena, Arabian wolves and lynxes.

As part of the project, the researchers gathered and tested genetic samples from 138 Arabian oryxes at Al Wusta Wildlife Reserve, and 36 historical samples from the Phoenix Zoo – the offspring of a herd established there in the 1970s.

They studied the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA and biparentally inherited single nucleotide polymorphisms, which are genetic variations used to identify species.

They discovered that the Arabian oryx’s gene pool was moderately diverse, meaning that herds can respond to changing environments and maintain good health.

In fact, at 58 per cent of the total diversity, the current-day sample was more genetically diverse than the historical ones.

“This means that conservation strategies based on random mating could be reasonably successful,” said Prof Gongora, the lead author of the study.

The team uncovered three ancestral groups, but their genetics were not evenly distributed across the current-day herds in the wildlife reserve.

Based on this, they suggest a targeted breeding strategy in which females can breed with males from the other genetic lineages.

“To ensure the survival of the species, it’s not just about population size – it’s about genetic diversity,” Prof Gongora said.

He and his colleagues are working with Al Wusta Wildlife Reserve to implement this strategy.

The researchers also recommend that the Arabian oryxs' genetic samples be stored in a biobank for future genetic analyses.

And bio-banking of eggs and sperm samples could also be considered as a long-term insurance policy against extinction.

Updated: March 16, 2022, 4:47 AM