Pioneering study complete into the genetic diversity of capercaillie in the UK

Science is now informing capercaillie conservation as never before. For the past three years, the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project has worked with the RZSS WildGenes laboratory at Edinburgh Zoo on a study of capercaillie DNA to help reveal the genetic diversity of the birds left in Scotland.

Now the work is complete, the full report is available to read by clicking on the link below.

Analysing the genetic diversity of the capercaillie population in the Cairngorms National Park – Final report (pdf)

Genetic diversity is a key metric in a species’ ability to adapt and survive, and maintaining and restoring it is especially important in populations that have undergone dramatic declines.

“Our research will help identify whether we need to consider measures that help expand the gene pool to aid the long-term survival of capercaillie in the UK rather than simply increasing numbers,” explains Dr Alex Ball, RZSS WildGenes programme manager.

For many species, DNA can be gathered by capturing individuals and taking blood, but that’s just not possible with a species as susceptible to disturbance as the capercaillie. The Cairngorms Capercaillie Project instead came up with a non-invasive collection technique that saw keepers, stalkers, foresters, rangers and ecologists collect more than 1,000 dropped feathers from the forest floor outside of the breeding season. The feathers were then sent to the RZSS WildGenes team at Edinburgh Zoo for analysis.

But the research does not just involve Scottish birds, or even only those alive today. Keen to include a comparison with capercaillie from elsewhere, samples were also obtained from populations across Europe – including from Sweden, Poland, Germany and the French Pyrenees – many of which are also seeing a decline in numbers.

This comparative approach has helped the WildGenes team to not only identify genetic differences between capercaillie in the UK and elsewhere but also to produce genetic tools that are more widely applicable.

“While our work is directly focused on the capercaillie population in Scotland, our genetic research will also help us to create tools to study other populations across Europe,” notes Alex Ball.

To complete the genetic research puzzle, the WildGenes lab also worked with samples from historic specimens preserved for display in private collections and museums both here in the UK and from overseas. Significantly, some samples came from Sweden’s Museum of Natural History in Stockholm. Capercaillie have become extinct in the UK once before – in the 18th century – with the species subsequently reintroduced using birds translocated from Sweden. Unsurprisingly, the early signs are that such ancestry ensures a close genetic match between the Scottish population and Swedish birds today.

Having collected one of the largest genetic data sets of any RZSS WildGenes project to date, the task was then to process and analyse the data which took several months.

“Our work now is about understanding all that has surfaced through the genetic research and how that feeds into a coordinated action plan for capercaillie that will provide ongoing and increased support for capercaillie in the Cairngorms, based on the best available evidence,” explains Carolyn Robertson, Project Manager for the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project

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