In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Conservation Genetics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Genetic Variation and Extinction
  • Inbreeding Depression
  • Population Size
  • Population Bottlenecks
  • Population Structure
  • Identification and Assignment of Individuals
  • Hybridization
  • Restoration, Rescue, and Releases
  • Taxonomy and Molecular Systematics
  • Quantitative Genetics
  • Conservation Genomics
  • Captive Breeding
  • Exploitation

Ecology Conservation Genetics
David Coltman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 October 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0028


Conservation genetics is a multidisciplinary field that applies the principles of heredity to the preservation and restoration of biodiversity. Conservation genetics is an integral subdiscipline of conservation biology that is theoretically underpinned by population and quantitative genetics and to a large extent made possible to practice by utilizing the tools of molecular genetics. Recognition of the importance of variation in the persistence and vigor of wildlife populations goes back to Darwin, but the modern field of practice did not really emerge until the latter half of the 20th century. Views of the relative importance of genetic diversity in population viability and wildlife conservation have varied over time, at times taking a backseat to consideration of the effects of demographic and environmental stochasticity on extinction risk. Most conservation geneticists now view genetic factors as playing interactive and synergistic roles with ecological factors in determining population viability and extinction risk. The field expanded tremendously in the 1990s and 2000s for a number of reasons. First, the world is clearly experiencing an accelerating biodiversity crisis as a consequence of human activity, and this increasing sense of urgency has motivated all fields of conservation biology. Second, rapid advances in molecular biological techniques and increasing accessibility of genetic technologies have provided a generation of conservation geneticists with the ability to study genetic variation at the DNA level in nonmodel species. Third, the interpretation of these data has advanced beyond the simple assessment of genetic diversity through the use of more powerful population genetic models to infer historical demography, contemporary dispersal, cryptic population structure, and hybridization. In the near future, the increasing accessibility of ultra-high throughput sequencing technology will provide researchers with many new avenues such as the ability to assess functionally adaptive genetic variation so as to rapidly catalog and characterize biodiversity from environmental samples.

General Overviews

These works provide introductions and overviews of the field of conservation genetics. Caughley 1994 is a key paper in conservation biology that defines the small and declining population paradigms. It provides a context for conservation genetics, because most empirical conservation genetic research deals with the genetic consequences of a small population and attempts to relate that to population viability and persistence. Ellstrand and Elam 1993 relates the population genetic consequences of small population size to plant conservation. Allendorf and Luikart 2007 and Frankham, et al. 2002 are comprehensive textbooks suitable for advanced undergraduate or graduate-level study. Allendorf and Luikart 2007 includes broad coverage of the relevant population genetic theory as well as chapters that specifically relate genetics to conservation. Frankham, et al. 2002, an earlier text, also provides comprehensive coverage of the underlying evolutionary genetic principles as well as relates theory to practice. Frankham, et al. 2004 is a distilled version suitable for undergraduates or for a more accessible introduction to the significance of genetics to biodiversity preservation for conservation practitioners. DeWoody, et al. 2010 provides a collection of chapters dealing specifically with modern and advanced molecular approaches contributed by specialists. This diverse and timely collection includes chapters focusing on topics such as genetically modified crops, adaptive genetic variation, ecosystem genetics, and conservation genomics. A recent review in Frankham 2010 provides updated assessments of the state of the field and outlines future challenges with emphasis on increasing utility of genomic approaches. Kramer and Havens 2009 provides a recent overview of plant conservation genetics, highlighting future research priorities that emphasize the need to study adaptive genetic variation in the context of restoration.

  • Allendorf, Frederick William, and Gordon Luikart. 2007. Conservation and the genetics of populations. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    This is a fully comprehensive text aimed at advanced undergraduates or graduate students that provides an excellent treatment of the field. Each chapter is punctuated by guest boxes that often illustrate key principles and applications of conservation genetics in a case study, each authored by leading practitioners in the field. A valuable reference for conservation geneticists.

  • Caughley, Graeme. 1994. Directions in conservation biology. Journal of Animal Ecology 63:215–244.

    DOI: 10.2307/5542

    This is a foundational article in conservation biology that defines the small and declining population paradigms. It has proven to be a very provocative paper for conservation genetics. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • DeWoody, J. Andrew, John W. Bickham, Charles H. Michler, Krista M. Nichols, Olin E. Rhodes Jr., and Keith E. Woeste, eds. 2010. Molecular approaches in natural resource conservation and management. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A multiauthor collection of chapters on molecular conservation genetics contributed by specialists in the field and intended for scientists and conservation practitioners. Each chapter deals with a specific topic and is usefully illustrated by one or more case study boxes.

  • Ellstrand, N. C., and D. R. Elam. 1993. Population genetic consequences of small population size: Implications for plant conservation. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 24:217–242.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    An excellent review of the theory and data relating the genetic consequences of small population size to plant conservation. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Frankham, Richard. 2010. Challenges and opportunities of genetic approaches to biological conservation. Biological Conservation 143.9: 1919–1927.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2010.05.011

    This provides a short but rich overview of genetic contributions to conservation with an emphasis on the application of current knowledge and future research opportunities. The paper is capped by thoughtful recommended priority lists for applying current genetic knowledge, collecting additional data, and handling new research challenges. Highly recommended for graduate students planning and thinking about the placement of their work. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Frankham, Richard, J. D. Ballou, and David A. Briscoe. 2002. Introduction to conservation genetics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A fully comprehensive text suitable for advanced undergraduates or graduate students that provides an excellent introduction to the foundations of the field. Chapters include recommended further readings and provide problems and exercises that make this a very useful resource for teaching as well as general reference.

  • Frankham, Richard, J. D. Ballou, and David A. Briscoe. 2004. A primer of conservation genetics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A highly accessible introduction to conservation genetics suitable for nonspecialists and potentially suitable for introductory undergraduate courses.

  • Kramer, Andrea T., and Kayri Havens. 2009. Plant conservation genetics in a changing world. In Special Issue: Plant Science Research in Botanic Gardens. Edited by Peter R. Crane, Stephen D. Hopper, Peter H. Raven, and Dennis W. Stevenson. Trends in Plant Science 14.11: 599–607.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.tplants.2009.08.005

    This is a recent overview on genetic aspects of conservation from a plant perspective that identifies future research priorities and emphasizes the need to consider population and community responses to climate change. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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