Swansea University in Global White Lion Protection drive
Ecologists at Swansea University have joined forces with the Global White Lion Protection Trust in an effort to help protect the last of the Timbavati white lions.
The lions, originally from the Timbavati region of South Africa, are an iconic and incredibly rare type of lion. In recent years their numbers have declined significantly and their movement restricted to a number of protected areas.
Only one white lion pride which still exists naturally in the wild today.
This phenomenon, together with the increased risk from poachers, trophy hunters and interest from zoos has caused great concern among conservationists around the globe.
In an effort to raise the profile of the plight of these remaining white lions in the wild, conservation ecologists, Dr Dan Forman and Carolyn Greig from the Institute of Environmental Sustainability at Swansea University has teamed up with the Global White Lion Protection Trust founded by Linda Tucker.
One of their key objectives will be to identify the gene responsible for determining white fur colour among the Timbavati lions in sharp contrast to the more typical tawny colour exhibited by most lions.
Commenting on the partnership, Dr Forman said: “Determining which gene is involved in this process and its frequency within the population is extremely challenging due to the sheer number of genes that may be involved. However, it is clearly essential to assess the long-term viability of the remaining white lions in the wild.
“The occurrence of different coloured morphs is controlled by the relative frequency of the genes that control fur colour within populations. The gene controlling the manifestation of white fur is recessive and requires two parents carrying the recessive gene to mate in order for some or all of the offspring to have white fur.”
The Swansea University duo recently began working with the Global White Lion Protection Trust where they will be screening lion DNA to identify which gene controls white fur colour.
Using DNA extracted from fur samples provided by West Midlands Safari Park from their captive white lions, two candidate genes known to cause white coloration in other mammals - the melanocritin-1 receptor gene and melophilin - have initially been screened using molecular techniques.
Preliminary results indicate that neither of these genes is likely to control white fur colour in lions.
It is now hoped that a more detailed analysis of this data will provide a more conclusive analysis. However, Dr Forman and Ms Greig expect many more genes will have to be screened before a definitive answer is found.
The pair is also hopeful that a close working relationship between Swansea University and the Global White Lion Protection Trust over the next few years will help facilitate further screening of other candidate genes and research on the evolution and adaptive significance of white colouration in lions.