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Inbreeding poses serious threat to Chinese alligators
Last Updated(Beijing Time):2007-05-08 09:19

Widespread inbreeding within the country's largest population of artificially bred Chinese alligators could lead to genetic degradation, experts warned following a recent spike in the reptile's population.

The Chinese alligator is one of the world's most endangered reptiles and is under top-level State protection. The alligators are also called Yangzi'e, or Yangtze alligators, after their primary habitat in the lower reaches of Yangtze River.

Beyond the Yangtze, wildlife officials operate a reserve in Xuancheng, Anhui Province, that is home to more than 10,000 alligators as well as the Chinese Alligator Propagation Research Center (CAPRC).

The trouble is that some 1,000 new alligators are born at the center each year, raising fears of inbreeding.

"Offspring produced by genetically similar parents are often weak and have a hard time surviving," Wang Chaolin, a senior engineer at the center, said.

The population boom is also putting pressure on the limited space at the center.

The center's largest pond was originally designed for 14 alligators, but is now home to more than 450, making it difficult to avoid inbreeding, Wang said.

In a recent effort to avoid inbreeding, the center has built 150 new ponds.

Wang said the new ponds had been designed to house adult Chinese alligators, and that each pond could only accommodate one male and no more than two females.

The alligators are separated into different ponds after undergoing DNA tests results to ensure they are not related, he added.

More than 300 candidate alligators of breeding age have been tested so far.

"The new ponds make it easier for us to confirm the parents of any newborn alligators," Wang said.

He added that the center's goal was to eventually release the alligators into the wild.

Nine Chinese alligators were successfully returned to the wild in 2003 and 2006.

And six healthy alligators that had been selected from hundreds of adults between the ages of eight and 10, will be set free later this month, Wang said.

The Chinese alligator can be found only in China. Along with the giant panda, it is considered a "living fossil" because the species first appeared on the earth some 230 million years ago. However, the alligators' numbers have dwindled sharply in recent years because of the deteriorating ecological conditions of the Yangtze River, mainly caused because of pollution.

A survey in 2005 showed that there were less than 150 wild Chinese alligators, compared with about 300 two decades ago.

Protecting Chinese alligators will shed light on the origins of human beings, as well as other ancient plants and animals, Wang said.

Source:China Daily 
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