DNA helps biologists monitor rare Korean ungulate

Deep in the remote mountain crags and valleys of the eastern Korean Peninsula, an imperiled goatish herbivore called the long-tailed goral (Naemorhedus caudatus) persists despite the pressures of development and agriculture. This elusive species remains a bit of a mystery to scientists, but new sample collection methods could help shed light on its few, fragmented populations and inform its conservation.

“We would like to identify the number of individuals, so we tried to develop methods like hair trapping because it is very difficult to get information of the goral,” said Sungwon Hong, corresponding author on a paper published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin comparing some of these techniques.

A doctoral candidate at South Korea’s Pusan National University, Hong and his fellow researchers deployed noninvasive barbed and hooked hair traps in the Wangpi River Basin between 2008 and 2010 to obtain genetic material from gorals for population analyses. They lured the animals to the traps, which have been commonly used on carnivores, at 15 locations with mineral blocks that the gorals lick to acquire salt. The team ended up gathering hundreds of hairs.

“The hairs from the traps show high genetic information,” Hong said.

The hair traps replaced previous methods that relied on presence data from carcasses, often animals that died from vehicle collisions or severe snowfall, to learn about the gorals’ population size and genetic diversity.

The long-tailed goral is classified as vulnerable on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species owing to population declines of more than 30 percent over recent decades. It also inhabits North Korea, Russia and China.

In South Korea, Hong said, conditions for the ungulate have advanced since the 1970s, and its population may have surpassed 1,000 thanks to better wildlife research, protection and reintroduction to parts of the country where it once roamed. “There are societies for the conservation of the goral,” Hong said.

Even so, he said, the gorals’ population growth is slow because they only reproduce every few years and give birth to just one or two offspring at a time. While older threats like subsistence hunting have waned, Hong said, he and his colleagues are investigating the intensifying impacts of climate change on the mortality of the species.

Header Image: A goral and its calf brush up against a hair trap in eastern South Korea. ©Hee-Bok Park