Bob Henke column: DNA in humans, hogs and the massasauga – The Post Star

I made a mistake recently. Shocking, I know.

Someone suggested it was “fun” to have your DNA analyzed and I went for it without considering potential consequences. Dr. Wifey and I wound up spitting into small tubes and mailing them off to a genealogy site for evaluation. The results were partially interesting and partially alarming.

The parts I found interesting would have been alarming to my grandparents’ generation. One grandfather and his brothers had been hazed a bit over their Native American background and in return liked to make jokes about the “Scotch/Irish,” who were generally the hazers. This was doubly satisfying since there had not been the best of relations between Scotch and Irish in this area. The DNA revealed not only was there not nearly the amount of Native American in my background as advertised but there was a far higher percentage of both Scotch and Irish.

My grandfather on the other side, a forensic accountant who spent much of his time in opposition to city businessmen, importers and developers, was known to occasionally employ epitaphs we would certainly consider anti-Semitic nowadays. The fact that nearly 20 percent of my background came from Eastern European Jewish stock, which must have come from his side of the family, would have been terrific knowledge to have back in the day.

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As interesting as the genetic background was to contemplate, the extension of this was a bit more alarming. My first clue was when my son, who had also had his DNA analyzed, received notification that it was 99.9% certain that I was his father. Given some of the circumstances, I never had any doubt but imagine if this were not the case. I thought this genetic “outing” was perhaps something they should have run past me to see if I wanted it public knowledge.

Then came the calls from people who had been notified they were cousins (apparently my uncles’ resentment against the Scotch/Irish was somewhat mutable) and in Janice’s case even a bit closer than cousin. I am really not sure we wanted to know about the peccadillos of our ancestors but the range of variation in groups we formerly considered fairly genetically tight was interesting. There have been similar findings, perhaps of a bit more utility, in wildlife populations.

A feral animal that has been generating a great deal of hate and discontent throughout the USA (and recently Canada as well) is the wild hog. These animals, genetically a mix of domestic pigs and European wild boar, have been increasing their range and population numbers dramatically in the past 50 years. Feral hogs have existed throughout the south for 500 years in fairly small numbers. No one knows why the explosion is occurring, other than the interstate highway system creating travel ways between ecosystems and perhaps the human exodus to urban areas, but wildlife managers are united in the belief something must be done.

In addition to the habitat destruction these hogs cause, they also eat tremendous numbers of ground-nesting birds and baby animals from rabbits to fawns. Some states — like Texas, which has 40 percent of the total wild hog population — have simply declared them vermin, with no closed season or bag limit. They are essentially managing through the use of hunters. Other states — like New York, which has no sustaining population at this time — take the opposite approach. Hog hunting is prohibited in this state with management when needed done entirely by state personnel.

DNA studies demonstrate that both approaches have merit. Wild hogs seem to exist in two conditions. One is where there is a great deal of genetic diversity. This indicates lots of movement from group to group and area to area. In a case like this, capturing an entire group at once (the New York model) would have little long-term effect because hogs from neighboring areas would simply move in to the vacant, inviting areas. This might even cause an overall increase given the propensity of populations to explode in new environments.

Here as much hunting pressure and routine take as possible stands the best chance of having long-term effect. However, there are other areas where the groups of pigs are very closely related with little genetic variation. This indicates almost no movement from area to area. In such a situation, methods that would capture an entire group could be hugely effective since the DNA demonstrates there is little likelihood another group will move in.

Another species with interesting DNA patterns is one of our rattlesnakes, the massasauga. The ones found in the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada are a subspecies, the eastern massasauga. They exist in small numbers, in isolated areas, and are considered a threatened species. Biologists have been concerned about the effect of in-breeding in the small groups and schemes for moving individuals around to increase variation have been considered. DNA studies of the two subspecies (Eastern and Western) are showing that in-breeding may not necessarily be a bad thing.

There are a number of identifiable “bad” genes in the massasauga geome and, surprising, these show up far more frequently in the more genetically diverse western subspecies. The eastern subspecies, in a much more specific habitat, cannot tolerate these bad genes and individuals born with them typically die before being able to reproduce. This quick purging of the gene pool, albeit a somewhat narrower one due to in-breeding, seems to yield individuals particularly well-suited to the particular ecological niches.

Apparently, if you are a massasauga, having a bunch of cousins, half siblings, and other such relatives is a good thing…

Bob Henke writes a weekly outdoors column for The Post-Star.

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Source: https://poststar.com/sports/outdoors/bob-henke-column-dna-in-humans-hogs-and-the-massasauga/article_0c203d58-05b1-5113-bc4a-14b6c7874953.html

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