Otters tracked from droppings

October 20, 1995

Otter droppings and grouse feathers will allow scientists to help Scottish wildlife conservationists.

An ecological molecular genetics laboratory opened this week at Aberdeen University, bringing together researchers from the departments of zoology and molecular and cell biology, and the Natural Environment Research Council's institute of terrestrial ecology.

The Pounds 1 million, five-year programme links the latest DNA technology with ecological expertise.

Paul Racey, Aberdeen's regius professor of natural history, said that normal methods of tagging and radio tracking were becoming less effective because otters and other animals were learning to avoid the wooden box traps necessary for tagging them.

DNA fingerprinting of individual animals and birds from hairs, feathers or droppings would yield better information on the true size of a population, which could then be fed into conservation policies. The Scottish otter population was internationally important, since otters were rare or extinct in many other areas.

Professor Racey warned that water voles, "nice animals, very placid and pure vegetarian", were already facing extinction, attacked by escaped mink, and by people who thought they were water rats.

There are dramatic annual fluctuations in the number of red grouse, not always due to obvious factors such as weather, food shortages and disease.

Researchers will look at individual birds to investigate whether these could also be caused by competition between extended families for living space.

* One of the world's leading groups in investigating the biology of sea mammals is moving to the Gatty Marine Laboratory at St Andrews University.

NERC's sea mammal research unit will move next spring from its present base in Cambridge to an extension at the Gatty, which includes a 40-metre tank for studying seals in controlled conditions before releasing them back to sea.

John Harwood, head of the unit, said the move took the researchers much closer to marine mammal study sites, notably the grey seal population in the Firth of Forth, and would strengthen its links with academic research groups.

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