New Tools to Map Genetic Data Improve Marine Protection

Maps help us make sense of the world. They reveal patterns and relationships and bring together different kinds of information in an easily understandable format. 

Example geospatial genetic data layers and graphics from the 3 interactive case studies for humpback whales (top), spinner dolphins (middle), and bottlenose dolphins (bottom)

Credit: Credit. Kershaw et al. 2021. AQC. Published online 25 June 2021.

Maps help us make sense of the world. They reveal patterns and relationships and bring together different kinds of information in an easily understandable format. In a new scientific paper, my coauthors and I present a “geospatial genetics” approach to mapping genetic data so it can more readily support marine protection efforts.

Biodiversity is made up of genetic building blocks. We need to maintain genetic diversity and protect evolutionary processes if biodiversity is to persist in the long run. A more diverse gene pool also promotes resilience to environmental disruptions, such as habitat loss and climate change.

The importance of protecting genetic diversity and evolutionary processes has been reflected in international and regional environmental policies, including the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and Food and Agriculture Organization, and the European Union Biodiversity Strategy.

Despite these commitments, the systematic use of genetic information in environmental protection has been lacking in practice. A knowledge and communications disconnect between geneticists and policy makers and managers is a primary driver. On the one hand, geneticists generate a wealth of useful information that is not easily understandable or readily available. On the other, there is a need for increased awareness on the relevance of genetics to environmental protection.


Genetic data provides unique information essential for the effective management and protection of marine species, like these spinner dolphins

Credit: Credit: F Kershaw

To help bridge this gap, NRDC worked with an international collaboration of scientists affiliated with the University of California – Santa Barbara, University of Idaho, University de los Andes, Vida Silvestre Uruguay, Tethys Research Institute, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the IUCN Joint SSC/WCPA Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force, to develop the geospatial genetics approach. This approach was refined through a series of meetings (including panel discussions and workshops) and published scientific papers starting in 2013 and was informed by a wide array of scientific and policy experts.

In the paper, we explain how genetic data (such as measures of population differentiation or connectivity) can be transformed to simple geospatial data layers using mapping software. These genetic maps can then be overlaid with or compared alongside other spatial data types (such as maps of habitat or satellite-tracked animals) and used to support decision making.


Maps help show how well Important Marine Mammal Areas (blue polygons) protect the genetic diversity of four humpback whale populations (populations: C1-C3, ASHW). Red indicates low diversity areas and green indicates high diversity areas.

Credit: Credit: Kershaw et al. 2021. AQC. Published online 25 June 2021

We showcase the geospatial genetics approach through a series of interactive case studies focused on marine mammals in different geographic regions: humpback whales in the southeastern Atlantic and western Indian Ocean, spinner dolphins in Hawaii, and bottlenose dolphins in the Wider Caribbean. The case studies are hosted on Seasketch, a collaborative marine spatial planning tool that enables practitioners to easily map and explore different genetic and non-genetic data layers, access graphics and supporting information, test different marine spatial planning scenarios, and actively engage with stakeholders throughout the planning process.

The geospatial genetics approach was then used to inform the identification of Important Marine Mammal Areas (or “IMMAs”), an initiative led by the IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force to apply criteria to identify marine mammal habitats across the world's ocean, seas, and relevant inland waters through a standardized process.

IMMAs are defined as discrete portions of habitat important to marine mammal species, that have the potential to be delineated and managed for conservation. IMMAs are not prescriptive, and as an evidence-driven, purely biocentric process, they have no inherent legislative or intended management result. Still, by highlighting areas of regional or global importance for marine mammals, they can serve as powerful tools to inform marine protection and spatial planning processes, especially where nations have specific commitments to marine mammal protection.


Mapping genetic data promotes collaboration and makes it more likely that important evolutionary processes will be protected

Credit: Credit: F Kershaw

Geospatial genetics can be readily applied to both terrestrial or marine species and we hope that this approach will spark increased collaboration among geneticists and practitioners. Our paper presents a starting point and many interesting questions remain as to how best to apply the geospatial genetics approach in different geographies and for different species, as well as how to improve the spatial representation of genetic data.

What is clear from our work to date is that it’s important for geneticists to be involved in marine protection efforts. This increased opportunity for dialogue and cooperation will serve to advance the field of geospatial genetics more rapidly and help ensure that evolutionary processes are consistently factored into marine protection and marine spatial planning decisions.

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