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Weymouth Sealife Helps Map The Genes Of An Endangered Sea Creature

Undulate Ray

7:35am 14th November 2014

Weymouth marine biologists are taking part in ground breaking research to try to uncover the genetic mysteries of an endangered British sea creature.

The team from Weymouth Sea Life Park are working with scientists at the University of Manchester to map out the genes of the Undulate Ray to try and boost their numbers.

Their data will be used to check the heritage of around 120 undulate rays in European aquariums, to draw up family trees and help pair up breeding adults to produce healthy offspring.

The team is looking at how diverse undulate ray DNA is – which gives an idea of how inbred an individual is. In a small breeding group inbreeding can result in frequent still-births and shorten the life-spans of offspring.

“This approach has never been used to aid captive breeding in sharks and rays before,” said evolutionary biologist Dr John Fitzpatrick, who is heading up the Manchester team.

“It is exciting for myself and my students to be working on a project with such a worthwhile practical application as well as strong scientific value.”

Weymouth Marine Biologist Jean-Denis Hibbitt said: "Many of those housed at Sea Life centres and other aquariums had changed homes on one or more occasions and details of each individual's antecedence had become very murky."

"Their long lifespan has also meant that many rays have been at aquariums longer than many of their keepers! That's why this collaboration with Manchester University could be invaluable."

PhD student Graeme Fox has been doing much of the laboratory work.

“We developed a set of genetic markers to help discover whether the rays are related or not,” he explained. “After screening the DNA, we were able to identify regions that were likely to be highly variable.

“That allowed us to give each ray a unique genetic signature, and this will enable us to determine whether they are brothers, sisters, parents, or distantly related to one another.

“Our hope is that this data will enable Sea Life to plan the optimum management strategy to secure the genetic health of this beautiful and sadly increasingly scarce species.”

Named after the distinctive wavy lines on their upper bodies, undulate rays live typically at depths of 50 to 200 metres.

Commercial fishing is blamed for the dramatic decline of the species, and was banned in 2009.

Jean-Denis is also hopeful the DNA testing will ultimately be extended to the UK’s wild populations.

Undulate rays typically have a patchy distribution in the wild, especially in the English channel.

“If it is found that the shrinking population has led to localised inbreeding  it would sound alarm bells for the future survival of an iconic species in our waters,” he said.

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