Conservation Science

Red squirrel conservation genetics

We are undertaking whole-genome sequencing of UK red squirrels with the aim of understanding population structure, landscape-wide distribution of genetic diversity and disease susceptibility in order to inform their long-term conservation.

Red squirrel conservation genomics

This project aims to undertake whole genome sequencing of UK red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) in order to understand present-day population structure, demographic history and comparative immunogenetics of the species. Our objectives are to use this information to inform their long-term conservation management in the UK.  

The red squirrel is an iconic and native species within the UK. It is identified as a conservation priority, due to a combination of pressures on their populations. The species has undergone widespread displacements, local extinctions and population declines that have been strongly associated with the invasive North American grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). This species outcompetes Eurasian red squirrels for ecological resources and acts as a reservoir for squirrelpox virus (SQPV), a disease that is lethal to red squirrels.  In addition, recent research has shown that some UK red squirrels populations are susceptible to leprosy.

To complement ongoing red squirrel research by our Conservation Medicine group, the Conservation Genetics group is undertaking genome-wide sequencing and genetic surveys of populations across the UK. Utilising the red squirrel genome recently sequenced by the Sanger Centre’s 25 Genomes Project in collaboration with scientists at Nottingham Trent University, we are developing an ambitious research programme on conservation and immuno-genomics of UK red squirrels. We plan to assess the distribution of genetic diversity across a heterogeneous landscape, how genetic diversity and population size has changed over time and the genomic basis of disease resistance/susceptibility. The study has a strong focus on Scotland, the last remaining UK red squirrel stronghold. In addition, we aim to contribute genetic information to studies of intraspecific morphological variation based on recent evidence of regional phenotypic adaptation in fragmented red squirrel populations. This study will form the core of an emerging collaborative programme of genomics-era red squirrel research that includes the National Museum of Scotland, the University of York and Forestry and Land Scotland.  We hope to provide genetic data that will inform the conservation and management of UK red squirrels, helping to safeguard remaining populations into the future.

For further information on this project, please contact Dr Rob Odgen or Dr Melissa Marr