Conservation genomics reveals possible illegal trade routes and admixture across pangolin lineages in Southeast Asia

Helen C. Nash*, Wirdateti, Gabriel W. Low, Siew Woh Choo, Ju Lian Chong, Gono Semiadi, Ranjeev Hari, Muhammad Hafiz Sulaiman, Samuel T. Turvey, Theodore A. Evans, Frank E. Rheindt

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Citations (Scopus)


The use of genome-wide genetic markers is an emerging approach for informing evidence-based management decisions for highly threatened species. Pangolins are the most heavily trafficked mammals across illegal wildlife trade globally, but critically endangered Sunda pangolins (Manis javanica) have not been widely studied in insular Southeast Asia. We used > 12,000 single nucleotide polymorphic markers (SNPs) to assign pangolin seizures from illegal trade of unknown origin to possible geographic sources via genetic clustering with pangolins of known origin. Our SNPs reveal three previously unrecognized genetic lineages of Sunda pangolins, possibly from Borneo, Java and Singapore/Sumatra. The seizure assignments suggest the majority of pangolins were traded from Borneo to Java. Using mitochondrial markers did not provide the same resolution of pangolin lineages, and to explore if admixture might explain these differences, we applied sophisticated tests of introgression using > 2000 SNPs to investigate secondary gene flow between each of the three Sunda pangolin lineages. It is possible the admixture which we discovered is due to human-mediated movements of pangolins. Our findings impact a range of conservation actions, including tracing patterns of trade, repatriation of rescue animals, and conservation breeding. In order to conserve genetic diversity, we suggest that, pending further research, each pangolin lineage should as a precaution be protected and managed as an evolutionarily distinct conservation unit.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1083-1095
Number of pages13
JournalConservation Genetics
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2018


  • Conservation breeding
  • Gene flow
  • Illegal wildlife trade
  • Mitochondrial markers
  • Population assignment
  • SNPs


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