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Ground-breaking genetic research to help save capercaillie in the UK - Cairngorms Capercaillie Project

The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s (RZSS) WildGenes experts are working with the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project on ground-breaking scientific research to help secure a long-term future for the UK population of the world’s largest grouse species.

Male capercaillie. Photo: Mark Hamblin
Male capercaillie. Photo: Mark Hamblin

Based at Edinburgh Zoo, the wildlife charity’s conservation genetics laboratory has been commissioned to analyse capercaillie DNA samples, to inform critical conservation action for the species as part of a project funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Over the last 50 years, UK capercaillie numbers have fallen by over 90% due to a range of issues including human disturbance, habitat loss, predation and climate change, with the majority of remaining birds now only found in the Cairngorms National Park and at risk of a genetic bottleneck.

Dr Alexander Ball, RZSS WildGenes programme manager, said, “Understanding the genetic diversity of the UK’s capercaillie population is critical for its long-term survival and resilience to threats. Our research will determine whether the conservation focus for the species needs to be on expanding the gene pool rather than simply increasing numbers. We will be using a novel technique that will maximise our ability to work with the degraded DNA fragments found in feathers collected from the capercaillie’s current range in the Cairngorms National Park.”

Carolyn Robertson, Project Manager for the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project, said, “We’re incredibly excited to be working with the RZSS WildGenes laboratory. This method of analysis has never been used in capercaillie conservation before. It will significantly help the management of these birds in the UK, and it could also pave the way for future conservation projects across Eurasia.”

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