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Historical population declines prompted significant genomic erosion in the northern and southern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum)

By Fátima Sánchez-Barreiro, Shyam Gopalakrishnan, Jazmín Ramos-Madrigal, Michael V Westbury, Marc de Manuel, Ashot Margaryan, Marta M. Ciucani, Filipe G. Vieira, Yannis Patramanis, Daniela C. Kalthoff, Zena Timmons, Thomas Sicheritz-Pontén, Love Dalén, Oliver A. Ryder, Guojie Zhang, Tomás Marquès-Bonet, Yoshan Moodley, M. Thomas P. Gilbert

Posted 11 May 2020
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2020.05.10.086686

Large vertebrates are extremely sensitive to anthropogenic pressure, and their populations are declining fast. The white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) is a paradigmatic case: this African megaherbivore suffered a remarkable population reduction in the last 150 years due to human activities. The two white rhinoceros subspecies, the northern (NWR) and the southern white rhinoceros (SWR), however, underwent opposite fates: the NWR vanished quickly after the onset of the decline, while the SWR recovered after a severe bottleneck. Such demographic events are predicted to have an erosive effect at the genomic level, in connection with the extirpation of diversity, and increased genetic drift and inbreeding. However there is currently little empirical data available that allows us to directly reconstruct the subtleties of such processes in light of distinct demographic histories. Therefore to assess these effects, we generated a whole-genome, temporal dataset consisting of 52 re-sequenced white rhinoceros genomes, that represents both subspecies at two time windows: before and during/after the bottleneck. Our data not only reveals previously unknown population substructure within both subspecies, but allowed us to quantify the genomic erosion undergone by both, with post-bottleneck white rhinoceroses harbouring significantly fewer heterozygous sites, and showing higher inbreeding coefficients than pre-bottleneck individuals. Moreover, the effective population size suffered a decrease of two and three orders of magnitude in the NWR and SWR respectively, due to the recent bottleneck. Our data therefore provides much needed empirical support for theoretical predictions about the genomic consequences of shrinking populations, information that is relevant for understanding the process of population extinction. Furthermore, our findings have the potential to inform management approaches for the conservation of the remaining white rhinoceroses. ### Competing Interest Statement The authors have declared no competing interest.

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