Source: Trinity College Dublin
Intensive selective breeding over the past 200 years and high extinction rates among feral populations has greatly reduced the genetic diversity present in domestic goat breeds. The effect these pressures have had on Irish and British goat populations has been explored in a landmark DNA study that compared modern-day domestic and feral goats with museum specimens from years gone by.
A collaborative team led by geneticists from Trinity College Dublin compared the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of 15 historical taxidermy specimens from Britain and Ireland and nine modern samples taken from Irish dairy and feral populations.
The team has just published their results in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters. Their work provides the first example in which DNA from taxidermy specimens is used to answer questions about livestock genetics.
Lara Cassidy, a researcher from Trinity's School of Genetics and Microbiology, is the first author of the journal article. She said: "There is an amazing wealth of genetic information locked away in taxidermic collections of animals that were -- and still are -- important for agricultural reasons. As such these collections are invaluable in helping us study the population history of these domesticated animals."
"Studying these specimens and comparing them with modern-day animals also helps to pinpoint existing populations that have retained some of the past genetic diversity, much of which has been lost to industrialized breeding. Retaining this diversity as an option for future breeding is very important, but some of these populations are being pushed to extinction."
The geneticists' study highlights an endangered feral herd living in Mulranny, Co. Mayo, as one such unique population in need of protection. Mulranny goats show a genetic similarity to extinct 'Old Goat' populations that lived on the Isle of Skye in the 1800s. They can therefore be considered among the last remaining 'Old Irish' goats.