Is the endangered Grevy's zebra threatened by hybridization?

Authors

  • J. E. Cordingley,

    1. Percy FitzPatrick Institute, DST/NRF Centre of Excellence, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch, South Africa
    2. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA
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  • S. R. Sundaresan,

    1. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA
    2. Department of Conservation Biology, Denver Zoological Foundation, Denver, CO, USA
    3. Mpala Research Centre, Nanyuki, Kenya
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  • I. R. Fischhoff,

    1. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA
    2. Mpala Research Centre, Nanyuki, Kenya
    3. McMaster University, Life Sciences Building, Hamilton, ON, Canada
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  • B. Shapiro,

    1. Department of Biology, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, USA
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  • J. Ruskey,

    1. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA
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  • D. I. Rubenstein

    1. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA
    2. Mpala Research Centre, Nanyuki, Kenya
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Correspondence
Justine E. Cordingley, PO Box 47409, Nairobi 00100, Kenya.
Email: justine.cordingley@gmail.com

Abstract

Hybridization between an abundant species and an endangered species is cause for concern. When such hybridization is observed, it is both urgent and necessary to assess the level of threat posed to the endangered species. We report the first evidence of natural hybridization between two equids: the endangered Grevy's zebra Equus grevyi and the abundant plains zebra Equus burchelli. Grevy's zebra now number <3000 individuals globally, and occur only in northern Kenya and Ethiopia. In recent years, Grevy's zebra have become increasingly concentrated in the south of their range due to habitat loss in the north. Both species are sympatric in the Laikipia ecosystem of northern Kenya, where we have observed purportedly hybrid individuals. Using mitochondrial and Y chromosome DNA, we confirmed the hybrid status of the morphologically identified hybrids and demonstrate conclusively that all first-generation hybrids are the offspring of plains zebra females and Grevy's zebra males. Behaviorally, hybrids integrate themselves into plains zebra society, rather than adopting the social organization of Grevy's zebra. Two hybrids have successfully raised foals to over 3 months in age, including one which has reached adulthood, indicating the fertility of female hybrids and viability of their offspring. We hypothesize that hybridization occurs due to (1) skewed sex ratios, in favor of males, within Grevy's zebra and (2) the numerical dominance of plains zebra in the region where hybridization is occurring. Stakeholders have discussed hybridization as a potential threat to Grevy's zebra survival. We argue, however, based on behavioral observations, that hybridization is unlikely to dilute the Grevy's zebra gene pool in the short term. As a conservation concern, hybridization is secondary to more direct causes of Grevy's zebra declines.

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