Genetic data and the listing of species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act

Conserv Biol. 2007 Oct;21(5):1186-95. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2007.00775.x.


Genetic information is becoming an influential factor in determining whether species, subspecies, and distinct population segments qualify for protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Nevertheless, there are currently no standards or guidelines that define how genetic information should be used by the federal agencies that administer the act. I examined listing decisions made over a 10-year period (February 1996-February 2006) that relied on genetic information. There was wide variation in the genetic data used to inform listing decisions in terms of which genomes (mitochondrial vs. nuclear) were sampled and the number of markers (or genetic techniques) and loci evaluated. In general, whether the federal agencies identified genetic distinctions between putative taxonomic units or populations depended on the type and amount of genetic data. Studies that relied on multiple genetic markers were more likely to detect distinctions, and those organisms were more likely to receive protection than studies that relied on a single genetic marker. Although the results may, in part, reflect the corresponding availability of genetic techniques over the given time frame, the variable use of genetic information for listing decisions has the potential to misguide conservation actions. Future management policy would benefit from guidelines for the critical evaluation of genetic information to list or delist organisms under the Endangered Species Act.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Birds / genetics*
  • Conservation of Natural Resources / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics
  • Decision Making
  • Genetic Markers
  • Genome
  • Mammals / genetics*
  • Reptiles / genetics*
  • United States


  • DNA, Mitochondrial
  • Genetic Markers