A population genomics approach to assessing the impact of climate change on the evolution and dynamics of East African bovids


Start date: 30 December, 2009 End date: 30 December, 2011 Project type: Smaller projects: PhD Project code: 09-028KU Countries: Kenya Tanzania Uganda Thematic areas: Natural resource management, Lead institution: University of Copenhagen (UCPH), Denmark Project coordinator: Rasmus Heller Total grant: 403,027 DKK

Project summary

The objective of the project is to assess the impact of climate change on the demographic history, i.e. population size changes in African bovids and to infer the distribution of genetic lineages through time and space. The output is expected to include a better understanding of the potential effect of climate change on large mammal communities, an assessment of the threat to large mammals due to habitat fragmentation and a better understanding of the overall biogeography of East Africa. In terms of organisation, the project is a PhD. project undertaken by the applicant. The project has ties to premier research environments in Denmark and Uganda and builds on collaborative ties already existing between institutions in the two countries. Newly acquired high-throughput sequencing machinery at the Department of Biology in Copenhagen will be used to provide first-class genetic data to carry out state-of-the-art evolutionary analyses.


The project has provided important insights into the history of large African mammals within the last 100,000 years. Notably, we have assessed the effect of past climate change and human activities on a key species, the African buffalo. This revealed that the human Neolithic revolution whereby the hunter-gatherer lifestyle was abandoned in favour of agricultural and pastoralist practise constituted a changing point in the human-megafauna dynamics. Whereas Palaeolithic hunters did not seriously affect the buffalo, Neolithis humans appear to have caused a severe decline in the effective buffalo population size. This provides the first systematic assessment of the drivers of magefauna dynamics on the only continent where large mammals remain abundant. As Africa has so far been severely understudied in this regard, we have contributed vital information about these dynamics on a global scale, especially considering the exceptional faunal diversity and richness found in Africa. We also carried out a study on the effect of Pleistocene pluvial periods on the geographical distribution of large savannah mammals, reviewing almost 20 years of studies on the subject. The results opens promising new research venues which will be explored further by the project coordinator in the future studies.

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