Nature Lab

By Bonnie Chasteen | February 1, 2021
From Missouri Conservationist: February 2021

Elk Restoration: Paternity Genetics

Last October, less than 10 years after the first of three shipments of Kentucky elk arrived in Missouri’s Elk Restoration Zone, the state held its first-ever elk hunting season — a sign that restoration efforts have succeeded as planned.

Even so, managers still had questions about the herd’s genetics. One was, “Who’s your daddy?” “With translocated elk, we get concerned about a bottleneck effect that can last a long time,” said MDC Biometrician Leah Berkman.

Bottleneck effect is a term geneticists use to describe what happens when a small, isolated group loses diversity and is at risk of “the effects of bad genes coming together,” Berkman said. These effects can include low reproductive fitness, increased genetic diseases, and a reduced ability to cope with environmental changes.

“However,” Berkman said, “while translocation can be stressful for elk, it can also shake up the group’s breeding patterns.” More males may get more opportunity to breed, and more genetic mixing helps the herd avoid the bottleneck effect, she said.

To study Missouri’s restored elk herd’s mating, birth rates, and paternity patterns, MDC partnered with University of Montana researchers. Their goal was to compare the Missouri herd’s genetic diversity with that of its parent herd in Kentucky. They also estimated effective population size and projected future losses in genetic diversity if the Missouri herd receives no new elk.

“We genotyped nearly every elk in the herd,” Berkman said, and she sees encouraging evidence that the herd will do well in the future without costly intervention.

MDC Cervid Biologist Aaron Hildreth notes that this work helped his team establish “a sort of baseline that will help us track changes through time with future genetic work.”

Elk Genetics at a Glance

Determine retention of genetic diversity in Missouri’s restored elk herd.


  • Tracking with radio collars, ear tags, and microchips
  • DNA sampling
  • Genotyping and genetic analyses
  • Identifying the most likely fathers


Data suggest the elk translocation strategy may have given more bulls more chances to breed


  • Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
  • U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service Restoration Grant,
  • University of Missouri
  • University of Montana

This Issue's Staff

Magazine Manager - Stephanie Thurber

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld

Associate Editor - Larry Archer

Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek

Art Director - Cliff White

Designer - Shawn Carey
Designer - Marci Porter

Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner

Circulation - Laura Scheuler