Karamanlidis, A.A., S. Gaughran, A. Aguilar, P. Dendrinos, D. Huber, R. Pires, J. Schultz, T. Skrbinšek and G. Amato. 2016. Shaping species conservation strategies using mtDNA analysis: The case of the elusive Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus). Biological Conservation 193: 71–79. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2015.11.014
Halting biodiversity loss is one of the major conservation challenges of our time and science-based conservation actions are required to safeguard the survival of endangered species. However the establishment of effective conservation strategies may be hampered by inherent difficulties of studying elusive animals. We used analysis of control region sequences to obtain baseline information on the genetic diversity and population structure and history of the elusive and critically endangered Mediterranean monk seal that will help define an effective conservation strategy for the species. We analyzed 165 samples collected throughout the entire extant range of the species and identified 5 haplotypes. Based on levels of genetic diversity (haplotypic diversity: 0.03; variable sites: 0.6%) the Mediterranean monk seal appears to be one of the most genetically depauperate mammals on Earth. We identified three genetically distinct monk seal subpopulations: one in the north Atlantic [Cabo Blanco vs. Aegean Sea (FST = 0.733; P = 0.000); Cabo Blanco vs. Ionian Sea (FST = 0.925; P = 0.000)] and two in the Mediterranean, one in the Ionian and another one in the Aegean Sea (Ionian vs. Aegean Sea FST = 0.577; P = 0.000). Results indicate a recent divergence and short evolutionary history of the extant Mediterranean monk seal subpopulations. Based on the results we recommend continuation of the monitoring efforts for the species and systematic collection of genetic samples and storage in dedicated sample banks. On a management level we argue that, based on genetic evidence, it is justified to manage the Atlantic and Mediterranean monk seal subpopulations as two separate management units. In Greece, the existence of two subpopulations should guide efforts for the establishment of a network of protected areas and identify the monitoring of habitat availability and suitability as an important conservation priority.