Conservation Success Stories: Increasing the Genetic Diversity of Guatemalan Beaded Lizards

Here at the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden, we believe in the importance of conserving the world’s wildlife and wild places. In 2020, the Zoo raised over $220,000 to benefit local and global conservation efforts as part of its Round Up for Conservation initiative. Through individual guest contributions, Round Up for Conservation funds helped cultivate 10 conservation success stories in 2020. One of those ten focused toward a goal of increasing the genetic diversity of critically endangered Guatemalan beaded lizards.

 The Guatemalan beaded lizard is an endemic species, meaning they are native exclusively to Motagua Valley in Guatemala. The Guatemalan beaded lizard is a lard-sized niche organism and require large, intact sections of forest to thrive. The World Wildlife Fund has classified the Guatemalan beaded lizard habitat as an ecoregion of special concern. Because of its restricted distribution, the species is in critical danger of extinction from habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, and lack of genetic diversity.

The Zoo is doing its part to contribute to the conservation of this important species. The Zoo’s Curator of Herpetology and Associated Field Programs, Dr. Brad Lock, cofounded and directs the conservation initiatives of the Foundation for the Endangered Species of Guatemala (FUNDESGUA). FUNDESGUA, founded in 2014, is the Zoo’s latest legacy conservation partner. Legacy partnerships are long-term established partnerships formed between the Zoo and selected conservation organizations. FUNDESGUA focuses on increasing habitat and protection for the critically-endangered Guatemalan beaded lizards.

Funding provided by the Zoo is used for a conservation awareness education program, operation of nurseries and planting sessions to propagate and plant trees for habitat restoration, and to determine the genetic diversity of known populations of Guatemalan beaded lizards. Genetic diversity requires a multitude of genes in a species population to contribute to the survivorship of a species. Understanding genetics of small populations is important for reducing inbreeding and preventing-significant loss of genetic diversity.

In addition to providing funding, the Zoo is also able to provide staff expertise. One of the Zoo’s herpetologists, Stephany Hernandez, was able to travel to Guatemala and engage in conservation efforts first-hand. During her trip, Hernandez was able see FUNDESGUA’s community impact by offering educational content and providing conservation resources. By partnering with local landowners, FUNDESGUA was able to secure 1,500 acres of land in 2019 for conservation. Hernandez was able to help with a forest restoration project in which they planted about 1,200 trees. Since its conception, FUNDESGUA has planted over 120,000 trees.

Not only are improvements being made to their habitat, in 2020, important advancements were made in assessing genetic diversity in one population of Guatemalan beaded lizards. First, a repeatable technique for measuring genetic diversity using laboratory facilities in Guatemala was developed. Results from the studied population revealed that the genetic diversity of the population was critically low. However, results from the collection of limited samples from both lizards in human care and in the wild, which signified unique alleles. Alleles are one of two or more alternative forms of a gene that arise by mutation and are found at the same place on a chromosome. This indicates that, although genetic diversity within populations is likely low, there is diversity across the species as a whole. This information will be utilized as a guide for breeding efforts of beaded lizards in human care. Results from this study provide hope for the future conservation of this species. 

 Wildlife and wild places are rapidly disappearing. The Zoo is working to conserve wildlife locally and globally. Please join in supporting conservation efforts by signing the #ENDTHETRADE petition at https://endthetrade.com/ or by participating in the Zoo’s Round Up for Conservation initiative. For more information about the Zoo’s conservation efforts and how to get involved, visit https://www.okczoo.org/conservation-projects.

- Dr. Rebecca Snyder, curator of conservation and science

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