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Water vole genome will help boost conservation of one of UK's most endangered mammals - Wellcome Sanger Institute

The water vole genome is published as part of the Darwin Tree of Life Project to assemble the genomes of 70,000 animal, plant, fungal and protist species across Britain and Ireland

A new tool to help conserve one of the UK’s most threatened mammals has been released today, with the publication of the first high-quality reference genome for the European water vole. The genome was generated by scientists at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, in collaboration with animal conservation charity the Wildwood Trust, as part of the Darwin Tree of Life Project.

The genome, published today (24 June) through Wellcome Open Research, is openly available as a reference for researchers seeking to assess water vole population genetics, better understand how the species has evolved and to manage reintroduction efforts.

The European water vole (Arvicola amphibius) is a small semi-aquatic mammal that lives on the banks of freshwater habitats and in wetlands. The species is native to Europe, west Asia, Russia and Kazakhstan. While the water vole’s conservation status is ‘least concern’ worldwide, populations in the United Kingdom have declined to such an extent that the species is considered nationally endangered. Habitat loss and predation by the American mink, an invasive alien species, have reduced the UK population from 7.3 million in 1990 to an estimated 132,000 in 2018.

Water voles gained full legal protection in the UK in 2008. There have been a number of conservation projects in the UK aimed at supporting water vole populations, including efforts at habitat restoration and to control the population of American mink. There are also efforts to reintroduce the water vole in a number of restored urban and wild habitats, as well as mitigate the impact of new development.

European water voles returned to Britain from ice-free refuges in Iberia and Eastern Europe after the last ice age, with these two clades contributing to genetic diversity in UK populations. This diversity may be apparent in certain traits, such as the black fur of Scottish water voles, which is distinct from those in England that tend to have brown fur. But the full wealth of genetic diversity cannot be estimated by appearance alone. It is also unknown how much diversity has been lost as a result of the recent population crash.

Read the paper here

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