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DNA insights could help protect manta rays

Researchers provide evidence for a potential new ray species and suggest improvements to conservation approach.

Manta rays under the water
A new framework would help protect ray species. Picture credit: Guy Stevens, Manta Trust

Further support for a potential new species of manta ray in the Gulf of Mexico has been uncovered by a global genetic study.

The findings also illustrate subtle differences in genetic make-up between populations of the same species in different geographical areas.

The study has important implications for conservation management, suggesting that assigning protection based solely on species classification may not be as effective as previously thought.

Genetic insights

An international team of scientists collated a large, diverse bank of genetic data on ray species, collecting tissue samples from 116 individuals for DNA analysis.

A comparison between species was used to establish an evolutionary family tree  ̶  in a practice known as phylogenetics  ̶  from which further analysis was done, highlighting the possibility of a new species.  

Future studies could provide additional morphological and habitat data in support of the naming of a new species.

Conservation approach

The findings provide a framework to aid protection efforts for manta and devil ray species around the world that are threatened by targeted and bycatch fishing.

Evidence of diversity within a single species suggests that previous conservation approaches may not be enough to protect individuals.

Researchers propose that conservation management should now be applied within species, to account for differences between geographically separated populations. 

Data generated within this study opens the door for defining distinct populations of manta and devil rays, and informing monitoring and regulatory efforts.

Conservation management relies on classifying diversity into discrete categories such as species or population units. For visually similar and elusive animals such as manta and devil rays, this can be challenging.  Our study illustrates the potential for genomic techniques to capture diversity both within and between species and aid in conservation. The priority now is a formal description of the putative new species in the Atlantic

Dr Emily HumbleRoslin Institute and Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies

The study was co-led by Bangor University, the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, the Roslin Institute, and the Manta Trust. It is published in the journal Molecular Ecology and has been funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, the Save Our Seas Foundation and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species.

**The Roslin Institute receives strategic investment funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and it is part of the University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies. **

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