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Molecular Ecology and Conservation

Molecular Ecology and Conservation

Since 2008, the School of Environment & Life Sciences has expanded its research in the field of population and conservation genetics, focusing on the application of molecular genetics and evolutionary theory on supporting the management of exploited living resources and conservation of endangered species and ecosystems:

  • Improving mechanisms for seafood authenticity and traceability, the identification of stocks and providing advice on their management
  • Supporting the conservation of endangered boreal species and endangered amphibians:
  • Increasing consumer awareness of the environmental implications of food choices, improving consumer confidence and food management policy, supporting environmental management and biodiversity, and guiding international conservation policy and management process.

Professor Stefano Mariani’s research on seafood genetic identification demonstrated, for the first time, the mislabelling of many traditional mainstays of UK and North-European seafood commodities, with mislabelled species being sold to consumers. Stefano also focuses on evolutionary, ecological and demographic processes in endangered mammals.

  • The Stock Identification Methods Working Group influences the EU Common Fisheries Policy, focusing on minimising mismatches between true biological stocks and traditionally perceived management areas and the formulation of improved approaches to defining stock units and the promotion of evidence-based management approaches. As a result of research by Stefano and colleagues, management advice was devised for several species, including Atlantic herring, plaice, black scabbardfish, and oceanic redfish.
  • LABELFISH is a network of laboratories and national bodies developing a common strategy and harmonised techniques to control the genetic traceability and labeling of seafood products sold on the Atlantic and a Europe-wide standardised approach to identifying and authenticating the major fish products traded in the EU. The UK government, through DEFRA, is co-funding this project and working with Stefano to ensure that the deliverables have maximum benefit to all stakeholders, including consumers, retailers, food processors and fishermen. 
  • A key element of deriving impact from research into fish mislabelling is public engagement. Stefano’s seafood mislabelling studies have been covered by The Guardian, prompting 129 comments and debate among the public, The Independent, The Telegraph and El Pais. The BBC series Fake Britain, Newsround and the Channel 4 documentaries Dispatches and Food Unwrapped commissioned Stefanoto provide advice on matters of genetic identification, seafood traceability and fisheries sustainability. Public engagement has raised awareness about the environmental implications of seafood substitution. Mariani has also successfully engaged food processing organisations and fishing lobby groups including SEAFISH whose purpose is to secure a sustainable and profitable future for the UK seafood industry, which has promoted Stefano’s research.

Dr Robert Jehle’s research in population genetics and behavioural ecology has contributed to the conservation of amphibians through the documentation of spatial and temporal population processes, generating public interest in stock and species management, and influencing international conservation policy.

  • Robert’s advice has supported the conservation management of UK amphibians, in particular the crested newt. The crested newt has declined in Europe, is very rare in Scotland and the rarest of three newt species native to Britain. Those which live in the Scottish Highlands, are separated by more than 80 km of unfavourable habitat from the main habitat in Central Scotland, so most assumed that they were introduced into the Highlands. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) commissioned Robert to use DNA fingerprinting to discover if great crested newts are native to the Scottish Highlands, comparing the DNA of eight populations from the Highlands with two reference populations from the northern limits of their more continuous distribution in Central Scotland, Robert showed that great crested newts are almost certainly native to the region and Highland newts are genetically distinct from those in central Scotland. SNH intends to devise new strategies, the creation of new ponds and the regulation of translocation schemes. David O’Brien of SNH said: “A number of us suspected the great crested newts were native to the Highlands, and we’re thrilled to find that this hunch was right. It’s important to know the newts’ origins, as they’re rare and protected nationally and internationally. This research gives even more reason to conserve the small, unique populations of great crested newts in the Highlands.”
  • Robert was commissioned by Natural England in 2013 to Great Crested Newts and their use of the Farmed Landscape in England and also by a A One + Area 7 to investigate the genetic impacts of a large-scale newt translocation due to construction work along the A6 in Derbyshire contracted by the Highways Agency. Robert demonstrated that translocated populations are genetically healthy but have survived in isolation, initiating the implementation of measures towards improving habitat modifications to increase connectivity.
  • Robert’s involvement in the Council of the Tropical Biology Association influences the remits and targets of this prestigious organisation, which is the primary NGO for conservation capacity building in Africa. The University of Salford is one of the few UK members (alongside Cambridge, St Andrews, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Leeds, Aberdeen, Nottingham, Belfast Universities).