Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Adder study to monitor inbreeding in isolated population

Sunderland researchers' genetic study into adder abnormalities
March 2012. Researchers want to find out if decreasing numbers of adders in the North East has led to inbreeding among colonies of the UK's only venomous snake.
The University of Sunderland has teamed up with Durham Wildlife Trust and Durham County Council to carry out a genetic survey of the adder population in geographically isolated areas of west Durham, testing DNA samples to reveal how much genetic diversity there is among the adder population.
Are adders suffering from inbreeding?
This is the first survey of its kind in this region, and is a result of growing concerns that adders are at risk as their numbers decline through loss of natural habitat and breeding grounds.
Skin & dead snakes being studied
Samples of the adders' skins are being collected over the next several weeks, as the snakes emerge from hibernation and start shedding. Dead snakes are also being analysed in the laboratories at the university, checking for markers which suggest inbreeding has taken place.
Isolated populations
Dr Noel Carter, a Senior Lecturer in Molecular Biology, said: "The adder project highlights a growing concern for wildlife in the UK, maintaining genetic diversity in isolated populations.
"With our research we hope to generate some preliminary data for substantial research, with a view to protecting this species for generations to come before they become dangerously inbred.
"While genetic surveys of adder populations have taken place in other areas of the UK, this is the first in the North East, looking initially at the Durham area, amid fears that dwindling populations will lead to inbreeding depression, a condition that could cause problems such as mutations from missing eyes to deformed spines, to adders being born dead."
Researchers will compare DNA samples in the university's new multi-million pound Sciences Complex, to see if the smaller clan groups are genetically impoverished.
If the levels of inbreeding can be pinpointed by researchers, results will strengthen the case for better protection off adder populations, by enhancing key areas through the linkage of habitats using landscape scale conservation, and by identifying hibernacula areas thus guiding proactive "best practice" management conservation.
As well as adders, if the project shows success, Dr Carter says the research may extend to other wildlife species considered ‘at risk', such as the water vole.
Durham Wildlife Trust experts will simultaneously conduct a number of surveys at different locations assessing the potential for "adder inbreeding depression" by determining the extent of inward and outward migration of adders (especially males) between sites through "capture mark and release".
Sarah Edwards, Heart of Durham project officer for Durham Wildlife Trust, said: "These dwindling numbers are very worrying and with the university's help we are trying to assess whether there is a lack of genetic diversity. This project is essential to establish suitable ‘Best Practice' methodology for future monitoring through the training of volunteers to carry out surveys and to record these findings on regional and national data bases, and to raise the profile of the adder and increase awareness of adder conservation issues.

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