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Encouraging the next generation of conservation geneticists

06/11/2017 in Conservation

RZSS WildGenes hosts prize giving ceremony for the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC) Trust and showcases the use of DNA-technology in helping to conserve native species

Above: The finalists at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, with Dr Pete Minting (back row, far left) of ARC and artist Cherith Harrison (far right)

For the last 12 months we have been working to organise an event that both celebrates and showcases the importance of DNA based technology in helping to conserve Scotland’s native species. This has been a collaborative effort and I’ve been working closely over the last year with Dr Pete Minting of the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust (ARC).

In 2016 ARC launched a competition inviting young artists and writers across Scotland to paint, draw or write about 15 iconic Scottish species. In October 2017, RZSS was delighted to host the award ceremony at Edinburgh Zoo, where the competition finalists received their prizes. During the ceremony, the prize winners and families met William the Wildcat (our mascot who champions wildcat conservation in Scotland), received tips on how to become a professional wildlife artist and learned how to extract DNA from a strawberry, as demonstrated by RZSS WildGenes senior lab technician, Jen Kaden.

Examples of the finalists artwork. Above: Beaver by Lewis McCulloch, Inverarary Primary. Below: Scottish wildcat, Mia Beattie, Lockerbie Academy

The awards day was followed by a DNA technology showcase, demonstrating its application in conservation management to a wider audience. The showcase included presentations by speakers who specialise in using genetic data to help inform wildlife conservation. Staff from RZSS and the RZSS WildGenes laboratory presented updates about the successful beaver reintroduction project, and how genetic data is being used to help conserve Scottish wildcats and native bird species. Visiting speakers from Mull, the University of Edinburgh, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), and Science & Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA) explained how DNA information has been used to distinguish different species of skates and rays which are otherwise identical in appearance, detect the level of hybridisation among Scottish deer species, help determine the origin of rare Scottish plants, and help solve issues of wildlife crime that sadly still occur in Scotland.

Using DNA-based information to help conserve native species is a hugely exciting, yet challenging, mission to be a part of. At ARC Dr Minting also runs the Great Crested Newt Detectives project in Scotland, where volunteers collect water samples from ponds that can be tested for the presence of the great crested newt using the DNA present in the water samples (https://www.arc-trust.org/gcn-detectives). This type of sampling relies on the presence of environmental DNA (eDNA) which is the genetic material obtained from environmental samples (soil, sediment, water, etc.) without any obvious signs of biological source. Using the material that species leave behind makes it a potentially useful technique for surveying species that are rare or difficult to observe, such as the great crested newt. At the WildGenes laboratory we continue to develop this technique for surveying native invertebrate communities, along with other DNA-based projects in Scotland (and further afield) such as the genetic study of endangered Scottish wildcats and European beavers.

Above: WildGenes senior lab technician, Jen Kaden, teaching volunteers how to extract DNA from a strawberry.

It is a tremendously exciting time for conservation genetics and as technologies improve, so too does the potential for using genetic evidence to help support and manage many species of conservation concern. It was wonderful to see the widespread interest and appreciation for the use of DNA based tools. Not to mention the exceptional efforts and enthusiasm that surrounds the conservation of our precious native species. Many thanks to all who contributed their time and efforts into making the event such a success. Hopefully through events such as these we can engage with some of the conservationists of tomorrow.

 

Until next time,

Gill

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