World first in conserving genetic diversity in the wild

Published: 27 November 2020

Scientists have developed a world-first method to help understand and conserve genetic diversity in some of our most iconic wild species.

Heather, red squirrel, golden eagle, Scottish bluebell and Scots pine are among those assessed in a new report* coordinated by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), and the University of Edinburgh.

Genetic diversity is the differences among individuals caused by variation in their DNA. It matters because it underpins crucial benefits we derive from the environment. As a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Scotland - and the rest of the UK - has signed-up to meeting goals and “Aichi targets” set out in the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020. Conserving the genetic diversity of plants, animals and wild species is the focus of one of these 20 targets.

But, while there are strategies in place to assess and report on genetic diversity in agricultural, horticultural and forestry species, there has been a gap when it comes to wild species.

Researchers identified a list of target species of particular importance for Scotland and developed a “genetic scorecard” for each, assessing their genetic diversity and any associated risks.

The species were chosen for their conservation or cultural value, importance for food and medicines or because they provide crucial ecosystem services such as carbon storage.

The research found that four of the assessed species - wildcat, ash, great yellow bumblebee and freshwater pearl mussel - were classed as being at risk of severe genetic problems as a result of factors including competition with non-native species, disease, habitat loss and pollution.

Conservation action is now underway to address these. What’s more, the new method for assessing genetic diversity will help further prioritise long-term conservation strategies and focus on the international target.

The report follows the news last year that SNH’s Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve has been formally recognised as the UK’s first area designated for genetic conservation, reflecting the importance of its ancient Caledonian pine forest.

“Our natural environment is central to our national identity, thanks in no small part to the many unique, varied and iconic wild species that are native to Scotland.

“A pivotal part of conserving some of our most at-risk biodiversity is to build a full picture of the pressures and issues that our wild species are facing – including the state of their genetic diversity. Work around conserving genetic diversity is an area where Scotland is genuinely ground-breaking. In Beinn Eighe, we were the first nation in the UK to have a site recognised for genetic conservation.

“That is why this report, which provides us with new and powerful insight into the state of the genetic diversity amongst wild species is so important, and I look forward to it playing an important role driving further progress to safeguard Scotland’s biodiversity.”

Roseanna Cunningham, Environment Secretary 

“Genetic diversity is the raw material that allows species to evolve and adapt to a changing environment – and thus conserving genetic diversity is an important way of helping nature to help itself.

“Genetic diversity is key to species adapting to changing climates, to new diseases or other pressures they may face. At a time of increasing pressures and threats – maintaining genetic diversity maximises options and opportunities for species to persist and survive”.

Professor Pete Hollingsworth, Director of Science at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

“Often when we talk about biodiversity the focus is on species and ecosystems, but genetic diversity is also essential for nature to be resilient in the face of pressures such as climate change, and it’s great that Scotland is leading the way in this field.

“For the first time, this report sets out a clear ‘scorecard’ method for assessing the genetic diversity of wild species and applies this to some of our most important plants, animals and birds.
“Not only does it fill a major gap in addressing the international target for genetic biodiversity conservation but importantly it can be expanded to cover many more species and adapted for use in any country in the world.”

David O'Brien, SNH Biodiversity Evidence and Reporting Manager

“The scorecard is designed as an affordable, practical tool that allows every country to assess its wildlife genetic diversity; what we measure in Scotland can now be compared around the world.”

Dr Rob Ogden, Head of Conservation Genetics at the University of Edinburgh and co-author of the scorecard report

The report has been endorsed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and submitted to Convention on Biological Diversity ahead of the Kunming summit, which will see 196 countries meet in China to adopt a new global framework to safeguard nature and its contributions to human wellbeing. The meeting aims to set the course for biodiversity conservation for the next 10 years and the decades to come.

The Aichi 13 Report 

* This report was produced via a collaboration involving 17 organisations; it was jointly coordinated by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Scottish Natural Heritage and the University of Edinburgh and supported by a SEFARI gateway grant to Prof Pete Hollingsworth at RBGE.

Contributing organisations were: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Scottish Natural Heritage, University of Edinburgh, Moredun Research Institute, James Hutton Institute, University of Sheffield, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Scotland’s Rural College, Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland, Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, University of Salford, University of the Highlands and Islands, University of Glasgow, University of Aberdeen


Source: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh




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