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Wyoming Mule Deer Stick Together--In Three Distinct Genetic Groups

Melanie LaCava

Scientists at the University of Wyoming have discovered that there are three distinct genetic groups of mule deer in the state.

Melanie LaCava, a recent PhD graduate in ecology and veterinary sciences at UW, and Holly Ernest, a UW professor of wildlife genomics and disease ecology and the Wyoming Excellence Chair in Disease Ecology, were part of the team to extract DNA from more than 400 mule deer.

"Wyoming has so much great research on these species, in terms of GPS tracking, that tells us a lot about their seasonal migration," said LaCava. "Our goal, in part, was to provide this other layer of information, genetics, that tells you about longer term patterns."

The researchers compared the genes of every pair of the animals in the study.

"We took every pair of deer in our whole study and said, 'Ok, how genetically similar are you? And what's in the environment between you? Is there a highway or not? Is there a big mountain range or a big valley?'" said LaCava.

The team found three distinct genetic groups of mule deer in the western, northern, and southern parts of the state. LaCava said that's likely because mule deer tend to breed with the animals closest to them.

However, in the northern group, animals that were separated by oil and gas wells or highways had more variations in between their DNA than expected.

Ernest said this study can help managers promote connectivity between mule deer throughout the state. It can also help monitor the spread of diseases.

Ashley is a PhD student in Astronomy and Physics at UW. She loves to communicate science and does so with WPM, on the Astrobites blog, and through outreach events. She was born in Colorado and got her BS in Engineering Physics at Colorado School of Mines. Ashley loves hiking and backpacking during Wyoming days and the clear starry skies at night!
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