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.
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...
To establish a practical genetic monitoring tool for rapid, high-throughput genotyping that is accessible to researchers monitoring flapper skate and spurdog. These standardised marker panels will produce additive datasets in perpetuity, providing invaluable repositories suitable for temporal and cross-laboratory comparisons and will permit ongoing monitoring across multiple legislative authorities.
As high-value fisheries species, many north-east Atlantic elasmobranchs have been significantly impacted by targeted fishing and by-catch. As a consequence of their low intrinsic rate of increase, recovery of their populations can be very slow and in some species a significant proportion of their valuable genetic resources may have been lost forever. This makes genetic monitoring to assess the variability and connectivity of populations essential components of management for identifying the best practices that are likely to benefit elasmobranch conservation.
Marine protected areas are increasingly used as a tool to promote conservation across locations chosen for their habitats that are likely to be important to species of conservation concern. Elasmobranchs in the north-east Atlantic have site-associated behaviours, which means they stand to benefit greatly from marine protected areas, as will other species in the local ecosystem in which these top predators play a pivotal role. The ‘Loch Sunart to Sound of Jura’ marine protected area in 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 indicated important habitats and it was hoped that protecting this population would allow connectivity with others, as the larger the interbreeding unit, the better it is able to maintain the valuable genetic diversity that allows the species to adapt to environmental change. The spurdog, an endangered elasmobranch, is incidentally protected in the same protected area and its genetic health and connectivity also need monitoring. Our initial work suggested that the flapper population in the marine protected area comprised individuals with unique maternally inherited genetic components. This could reflect that females are not breeding or travelling much beyond the protected area and that they are more isolated than initially hoped, thereby limiting the area’s effectiveness as a conservation tool that maintains genetic variation as part of a regional population. Genetic markers with a higher resolution suggest there is some connectivity with other populations, but this requires further investigation and the results need to be made capable of being interpreted by 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 any 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 and make it possible to determine the effectiveness of marine protected area management.
Tom has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tease apart the impacts of human visitation, climate change and fishing on Adélie, Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins. Using drone footage, camera data and faecal samples collected in 2020/21 and into 2022, he’s monitoring Antarctica in years with minimal human footprint due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Tom wants to know whether rising sea temperatures, increasing krill fishing or a growing tourism presence is driving declines of Antarctic Peninsula penguins. By comparing 10 years’ of monitoring data to these data, he hopes to use his findings to inform policy decisions to conserve the Antarctic Peninsula’s penguin colonies.
Demian’s team is developing tools that help border control officers identify illegal shark products. His project is sifting through ‘rhino ray’ DNA sequences looking for differences in code between the guitarfishes, giant guitarfishes and wedgefishes nicknamed for their pointy snouts (and Endangered status). Months of testing will help ensure only rhino ray DNA is targeted before the team flies to Hong Kong to help officials use a portable DNA tester. This project will add to the arsenal currently being used to identify illegal shark fins moving across borders, and help stop the trafficking of ‘rhino ray’ fins.
Aristide created a citizen science platform and mobile app for fishers across Cameroon’s 400 km coastline to record sightings of sharks, rays and marine life. These photos are uploaded to iNaturalist where they are identified and will serve to create Cameroon’s first elasmobranch atlas. Together with his team, Aristide ensures data are being uploaded, visits fish landing sites to assess bycatch and measure sharks, and scours the beaches to check for strandings and sea turtle nests. He collects tissue samples of threatened species in these visits that can give more insights into the diversity, population size and structure of vulnerable sharks.