A lioness and her cub. Pro­fessor of Biology Daniel york worked with lions like these as a part of his con­ser­vation genetics research in Africa. Daniel York | Courtesy

Many sci­en­tists believe that the next gen­er­ation will be the last to see lions in zoos, according to Pro­fessor of Biology Daniel York.

York studied the genetics from rare breeds of captive lions, retrieving blood samples over his 11 years of con­ser­vation genetics research.

Working alongside Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska, York developed an interest in the inbreeding and out­breeding of captive lions and joined a project in South Africa at Pilanesberg National Park located outside Johan­nesburg in the North West Province.

“It looks as though most of the captive lions that are in South Africa now are lions that were imported there from a group in the United States,” York said. “What they had done was col­lected several hundred lions from various zoos, cir­cuses, and car­nivals that wanted to get rid of them.”

Wild lions can be expensive to care for in zoos and cir­cuses, prompting some orga­ni­za­tions to sell the lions rather than con­tinue paying for their upkeep.

“A wild animal dealer basi­cally nego­tiated all of this and ended up col­lecting all of these residual lions from Europe and the U.S.,” York said. “He shipped them to South Africa, and then those lions got involved in the anti-cachectic breeding and also with the captive lion hunts in South Africa, which are quite con­tro­versial.”

York and his team, a large majority of which were stu­dents, retrieved blood samples from the various lions in order to compare the close rela­tions between the species.

They focused their work on potential inbreeding or out­breeding between those species, since there has been a dras­ti­cally dwin­dling lion pop­u­lation even among captive lions, York said.

The research spe­cific to Johan­nesburg was con­ducted on nine sedated lions. Then, York col­lected the blood samples and brought them back to Hillsdale for further study.

“Ini­tially, we worked alongside vets, so the lions were typ­i­cally ‘knocked out’ for vet­erinary work before we could retrieve samples from them,” York said. “Once the lion was immo­bi­lized, we got blood samples from them and brought the blood samples back here, extracted the DNA, and did genetic analysis on the DNA.”

Biology Lab Tech­nician Jeannine Lama said genetic analysis involves a process called poly­merase chain reaction, which amplifies a spe­cific region of DNA. The genetic sequence, once amplified, can then be sequenced and ana­lyzed.

Apart from merely sedating the animals to retrieve samples, York developed his own unique alter­native methods for retrieving data.

“I had the audacity to develop strong tech­niques for iso­lating high-quality DNA from scat,” York said. “It is a non­in­vasive method of col­lecting DNA without both­ering or harming the lions. I was listed on a gov­ernment grant in South Africa as ‘Daniel York, Pro­fessor of Biology, Hillsdale College: Inter­na­tionally Renowned Scat­ol­ogist.”

The work that York and his team com­pleted in Africa was noticed by other insti­tu­tions, including the National Zoo in Morocco.

The directors at the National Zoo then invited York and his team to come to Morocco and study the genetics of their Barbary lions.

Barbary lions had last been seen in the wild in Morocco during World War II , and the directors wanted York and his team to retrieve samples of “the last true Barbary lions.”

These Barbary lions were bred at the zoo after the turn of the century, and York was asked to see if there was any­thing unique about the lions’ genetics.

“These Barbary lions had dif­ferent genetics than I had ever seen before, espe­cially in com­parison to the lions in South Africa,” York said.

York con­ducted a similar research project in Africa asso­ciated with National Geo­graphic, con­cerning the status of the white lion pop­u­lation.

They learned after con­ducting research and genetic tests that the white lion pop­u­lation was in fact stable and not inbred — a finding York said was sur­prising.

Due to the reli­gious sig­nif­i­cance of lions in Eastern reli­gions, the National Geo­graphic team wished to re-release the white lions into Kruger National Park, one of the last regions in Southern Africa to have a natural pop­u­lation of lions present.

York said the goals of the National Geo­graphic team were well-inten­tioned but mis­guided due to the pos­si­bility of out­breeding depression. Out­breeding depression occurs when strong genes that develop in pop­u­lation in a par­ticular area during a par­ticular time frame are diluted because of breeding with dif­ferent species of lions.

“The last thing you want to do is introduce new genetics into that natural pop­u­lation,” York said. “It will lead to out­breeding depression. They didn’t under­stand and wanted to call the white lion a sub­species, which it is not.”

York empha­sized the need to begin man­aging lion pop­u­la­tions in a way that mimics old migrating pat­terns.

Moving certain amounts of female and male lions to spe­cific regions would allow the lions to cross­breed as in nature, without the restric­tions from man-made bound­aries like parks and fences.

Pro­fessor of Biology Jeffrey Van Zant said con­ser­vation genetics is a useful dis­ci­pline when looking at small, spe­cific groups of organisms.

“In general, con­ser­vation genetics is a crisis dis­ci­pline,” Van Zant said. “Appli­ca­tions of con­ser­vation genetics are place and species-spe­cific. You have to know the biology and the ecology of the species you work with.”

After working with lion con­ser­vation genetics research from 1999 – 2010, York’s involvement in lion genetics con­ser­vation even­tually came to an end due to the lack of donor funding and demands from other time com­mit­ments.

“My work with the lions has given me real life expe­ri­ences that help me when I go over with stu­dents the impor­tance of con­ser­vation genetics,” York said. “It helps me answer ‘Why? Who cares?’ and explain what is actually hap­pening. Stu­dents were able to learn new tech­niques, and research is a part of the teaching efforts here at Hillsdale.”