A genetic tool to help monitor sharks and skates in the North-east Atlantic

  • Rays & Skates
  • Sharks
Years funded
  • 2021
  • Active
Project types
  • Conservation
  • Research

Catherine is intent on helping better monitor flapper skates and spurdogs in the North-East Atlantic. To do so, she is developing a tool that can use DNA from egg cases, skin mucus and historical samples to analyse the diversity, kinship, connectivity and adaptations of these species. She and her team are identifying a subset of the most informative genetic markers for each species, which will help inform conservation strategies and MPA management for both species in Scottish seas.

A genetic tool to help monitor sharks and skates in the North-east Atlantic

Catherine Jones

Project leader
About the project leader

Growing up in the middle of England away from the coast a trip to the seaside was a treat; unforgettable days peering into rockpools, seeking out their darting inhabitants hiding amongst the seaweed. My family house was old, so observing indoor wildlife eventually led to an academic interest in mice as models of evolutionary genetics during a PhD at London University. This led to studying the genetics of more challenging, less well characterized species at Oxford University. Research fellowships on aquatic species allowed me to study genetics of blood flukes and tropical freshwater snails in Africa; figuring out why...

Project details

Genetic monitoring tool for North-east Atlantic elasmobranchs to assist conservation and management

Key objective

To establish a practical genetic monitoring tool for rapid, high throughput genotyping accessible to researchers to monitor flapper skate and spurdog. These standardised marker panels will produce additive data sets in perpetuity, providing invaluable repositories, suitable for temporal and cross-laboratory comparisons and permit ongoing monitoring across multiple legislative authorities.

Why is this important

As high value fisheries species many North East Atlantic elasmobranchs have been significantly impacted by targeted fishing and bycatch. With their low intrinsic rate of increase stock recoveries can be very slow, and a significant proportion of their valuable genetic resources may have been lost forever in some species. This makes genetic monitoring to assess variability and connectivity of populations essential components of conservation management to identify those best practices likely to benefit elasmobranch conservation.


Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are increasingly used as a tool to promote conservation across locations chosen for habitats likely important to species of conservation concern. Elasmobranchs in the North-East Atlantic have site associated behaviours which mean they stand to benefit greatly from MPAs, as will other species in the local ecosystem in which these top predators play a pivotal role. The ´Loch Sunart to Sound of Jura´ MPA west Scotland, was chosen to protect the flapper skate, one of two ´Common Skate´ species now recognised as endangered. Large numbers of skate in the area suggested important habitats, and it was hoped that protecting this population would allow connectivity with others, the larger interbreeding unit better maintaining valuable genetic diversity which allows the species to adapt to environmental change. The spurdog, an endangered elasmobranch, is incidentally protected by the MPA, but its genetic health and connectivity also need monitoring. Our initial work suggested the MPA flapper population comprised of individuals with unique maternally inherited genetic components. This could reflect females not breeding or travelling much beyond the MPA, that they are more isolated than initially hoped, thereby limiting the MPA´s effectiveness as a conservation tool maintaining genetic variation as part of the regional population. Higher-resolution genetic markers suggest there is some connectivity with other populations but this requires further investigation and the results need to be interpretable to future generations of conservationists. Assessing variation with a monitoring tool of a smaller panel of highly informative flapper skate and spurdog markers should allow new technologies to standardise genetic assessments, removing bias of individual laboratories and operators. Placing samples and data in a free access national repository will encourage the formation of larger working groups to monitor further flapper skate and spurdog populations to allow the effectiveness of MPA management to be determined.

Aims & objectives

Identify a subset of the most informative genetic markers for each species, derived from larger genome datasets, to develop a monitoring tool that will allow an analysis of kinship, genetic diversity, population connectivity and adaptive patterns. Evaluate the performance of the new monitoring tool for different tasks compared with alternative genome-wide markers. Trial the monitoring tool on DNA sources of poor quality/quantity, such as flapper skate egg cases and skin mucus and historic material. If successful this will allow the association of individuals to nurseries and increase sample sizes. Museum specimens may allow the assessment of historical changes in genetic diversity. Together with collaborating NGOs, create a manual for consideration by policy-makers and elasmobranch conservation bodies, illustrating how this methodology can be used in conservation management and monitoring of threatened species. Deposit a dataset based on available and new samples to form the basis of an additive data repository for standardized genetic information on these species.