Landscape Genetics of Gibbons in China

Assumptions about the abilities of primates to disperse through heterogeneous environments underlie many of our models of primate evolution, yet little is known about how primates with different body plans are differentially able to disperse through complex and variable landscapes. Even less is known about the population genetic consequences of this interaction. Landscape genetics, which merges population genetics with landscape ecology, assesses how fine-grained variation in geography and habitat affects population genetic structure. Through the analysis of rapidly evolving molecular markers identified from non-invasively collected DNA samples, I examine how the gene flow of endangered primates is restricted by natural and anthropogenic dispersal barriers.

My research focuses on the population genetic structure and landscape genetics of critically endangered western black crested gibbons (Nomascus concolor) in Yunnan Province, China. After decades of deforestation and hunting, these gibbons have been reduced to a small, fragmentary distribution with about 1,500 individuals remaining globally. Throughout much of Yunnan, terraced farms fill the sides of mountains leaving only rings of high altitude sky-island forest for gibbons. As altitude increases, these mountaintop forests grade into thickets of rhododendrons and bamboo that further hinder gibbon dispersal. My research program focusses on the evolutionary and conservation implications of how human forces interact with natural ecological variation to shape and modify the gene flow of these vanishing apes.