IISc study sheds light on how blackbuck survive challenges

It shows how the species have managed to survive in a human-dominated landscape

January 10, 2023 08:42 pm | Updated 10:44 pm IST - Bengaluru

Innumerable blackbuck dotted across rolling grasslands. Only a few such habitats continue to thrive in India.

Innumerable blackbuck dotted across rolling grasslands. Only a few such habitats continue to thrive in India. | Photo Credit: Ananya Jana

A new study conducted by the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) has shed light on how blackbuck in India have fared in the face of natural and human-induced challenges to their survival.

The blackbuck is found only in the Indian subcontinent. While males have corkscrew-shaped horns and black-to-dark brown coats, the females are fawn-coloured. The animals are mainly seen in three broad clusters across India that pertain to the northern, the southern, and the eastern regions.

This geographic separation as well as dense human habitation between the clusters would be expected to make it difficult for them to move from one location to another, said IISc.

Genetic profiling

According to IISc, the study conducted by Praveen Karanth, Professor at the Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES), IISc, and Ananya Jana, a former PhD student from CES, is among the first of its kind in its scope, which involved analysing the genetic profiles of blackbucks found across the country.

Mr. Karanth and Ms. Jana, who are senior and first authors of the study, published in Conservation Genetics, collected faecal samples of blackbuck from 12 different locations spread across eight States of India.

The researchers tracked the animals on foot and in vehicles from a distance to collect the samples. In the lab, they extracted and sequenced the DNA from the faecal samples to study the genetic makeup of blackbuck, and deployed computational tools to map the geographic locations with the genetic data. The team also used simulations to trace how the three present-day clusters may have evolved from their common ancestor.

What they found was that an ancestral blackbuck population first split into two groups: the northern and the southern cluster. The eastern cluster — even though geographically close to the northern cluster — seems to have emerged from the southern cluster.

High dispersal of males

Next, the team found that despite all odds, male blackbuck appear to disperse more than expected, thus contributing to gene flow in this species. Females, on the other hand, appear to stay largely within their native population ranges, which the researchers inferred from unique mitochondrial signatures in each population. The data also showed an increasing trend in blackbuck population numbers as compared to the recent past, IISc said.

Watch | Where have the blackbuck gone?

“So, [it] looks like this species has managed to survive in a human-dominated landscape,” Mr. Karanth said.

In future studies, the researchers plan to unravel the blackbuck’s secrets to surviving in the face of human-induced threats to their landscape, by studying changes in their DNA and gut microbiome. Such studies could provide better insight into their conservation.

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