Estimating the size and structure of Pine Marten populations using non-invasive genetic sampling

Jacinta Mullins

    Research output: Types of ThesisDoctoral Thesis

    Abstract

    The pine marten is one of six mustelid species currently established in Ireland along with the badger, otter, stoat, ferret and the American mink. The ancient origin of the Irish pine marten is unknown but it was possibly introduced into Ireland in the Bronze Age as a commodity species for its luxurious pelt. The species was legally protected in Ireland in 1976 after centuries of persecution with the extensive deforestation of the island and hunting for fur or predator control. The current conservation status is considered to be favourable as the population seems to be expanding its range from core populations in the mid-west, midlands and the south-east of the country. However, the status of these core populations has not been assessed and is very difficult to evaluate based on traditional survey methods. This study aimed to develop the methods required to census pine marten populations based on non-invasive genetic sampling of hair and faeces. Real-time PCR methods which enabled rapid species and sex identification of non-invasively collected samples were developed based on either the hybridisation of species or sex specific probes, or on differences in melting-temperature between amplified DNA sequences of less than 150 nucleotides in length. Genetic variability of the Irish population was assessed at 20 microsatellite loci. The number of alleles per locus (2.29) and expected heterozygosity (0.35) were low and a significant bottleneck signature was detected using a set of 41 road-kill individuals. The historical decline in pine marten distribution and abundance in Ireland has therefore had an impact on genetic diversity. Despite this no significant structuring was identified between regions, suggesting the dispersal ability of the pine marten is sufficient to maintain a panmictic population. A census of two populations in south-east Ireland was then conducted by non-invasive genetic sampling of hair and scats using the methods developed in the project. Species and sex identification success rates were high for both sample types (88-100%), but individual identification was more reliable with plucked hair (94%) than scats (38%). Nine individual pine marten were identified in total in between the two sites by genotyping hair samples with eight microsatellite loci. Independent live trapping surveys carried out after the non-invasive census validated the genetic approach as the same individuals were captured with both survey methods. Remotely plucked hair genotyping is a powerful and non-invasive survey method which can be used to inventory the magnitude and distribution of genetic diversity in pine marten, and other species with similar life history such as the stone marten, to identify any potentially important populations towards which conservation resources should be targeted in the future.
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    Supervisors/Advisors
    • O'Reilly, Catherine, Supervisor
    • Turner, Peter, Supervisor
    Publication statusUnpublished - 2010

    Keywords

    • non-invasive genetic sampling; population census; molecular sexing; microsatellite DNA; real-time PCR

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