A team of UK researchers has decoded the complete genome of a semi-aquatic mammal called the European water vole (Arvicola amphibius).
The European water vole is a small semi-aquatic rodent native to Europe and Asia.
Often informally called the water rat, the species lives on the banks of freshwater water courses and in wetlands.
While the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species reports that the European water vole is of Least Concern worldwide, populations in the UK have declined to such an extent that the species is considered nationally endangered owing to habitat loss and predation by the American mink (Neovison vison).
An estimate by Natural England put the 2018 UK population of the species at 132,000, down from 7.3 million in 1990. Water voles are absent from Ireland.
“Water voles are amazing animals and we don’t fully understand what ecosystems lose without them,” said Hazel Ryan, senior conservation officer at the Wildwood Trust.
“They are industrious habitat managers, almost like miniature beavers in the way they fell stems, make burrows and alter the landscape.”
“We suspect that some water vole populations have become inbred in recent decades owing to shrinking numbers and the fragmentation of populations through habitat loss.”
“The reference genome offers us a way to better understand genetic diversity for reintroductions and consider mixing individuals to ensure populations have the best chance to thrive.”
“The European water vole is a prime example of a British species whose genetic diversity we’re in danger of losing before we’ve had chance to fully record it,” added Professor Mark Blaxter, program lead for the Darwin Tree of Life project at the Wellcome Sanger Institute.
The European water vole’s genome was sequenced from a single male collected from the Wildwood Trust, Herne Common, Kent, UK.
“Understanding the genetic diversity and structure of water vole populations is an important aspect of their conservation in the UK, and is central to international guidelines on the movement of wildlife for conservation management,” said Professor Rob Ogden, director of conservation science at the University of Edinburgh.
“The release of the water vole genome provides a comprehensive set of genetic tools to support the future sustainability of the species in the UK.”
“This high-quality reference genome will allow us to do that, as well as support ongoing conservation efforts to preserve existing populations and reintroduce new ones in a way that ensures these populations are genetically robust,” Professor Blaxter said.
The results were published in the journal Wellcome Open Research.
A.I. Carpenter et al. 2021. The genome sequence of the European water vole, Arvicola amphibius Linnaeus 1758. Wellcome Open Res 6: 162; doi: 10.12688/wellcomeopenres.16753.1
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