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Breaking Down Borders of Gene Conservation Methods: Trees to Insects

Researchers from University of York have found positive responses from UK landowners and conservationists on diversifying gene conservation techniques from trees to insect species to encourage genetic biodiversity.

The advent of climate change has given rise to abrupt losses of genetic diversity, and accelerated the thinning of species and ecosystems. One key driver of biodiversity loss is the failure of natural evolutionary cycles of plant and animal species to keep up with the ever-rapid pace of climate change. In response to this environmental concern, international efforts have been made to conserve biodiversity, one of which is a particular framework known as the Gene Conservation Units (GCUs), which has been flourishing in European countries.

GCUs refer to areas of land organised to encourage species rehabilitation, dynamic gene conservation and support evolutionary processes that allow various species to adapt to environmental change. Usually deployed for tree species, boosting natural regeneration and protecting the size and diversity of breeding populations are among the top priorities pursued by GCUs with the aid of habitat management and population surveillance. A new initiative proposes to extend the benefits of GCU beyond flora species to its fauna counterparts. However, doubts on its feasibility and reception of key industrial players remained unresolved.

Researchers from the University of York have dispelled this concern in their recent investigation which found that UK landowners and conservationists are receiving the use of GCUs with open arms in order to protect rare plants and animals. The team also examined the potential benefits that GCUs can offer to some insect and plant species.

PhD researcher Melissa Minter, from the Department of Biology at the University of York, explained, “In investigating whether landowners would be interested in adopting a system of GCUs, we looked at the potential benefits these might bring to some species of insects and plants.

The cold-adapted Mountain Ringlet Butterfly and Great Yellow Bumblebee, which have been marginalised to several Scottish islands and northern tips of mainland Scotland, are of key concern. Being on the verge of populace decline and extinction due to the warming climate, these species are among many which require urgent conservation measures to mitigate the threat of annihilation.

Using a questionnaire, the team surveyed conservationists and land managers to gain insight on their viewpoints about adopting GCU systems to protect biodiversity. Their findings indicated that the GCU approach would be the subject of interest for many land managers if they are to be jointly-developed with different stakeholders. Establishing GCUs would also be particularly advantageous for landowners. It is widely-acknowledged as the best practice to promote species conservation, enhance genetic diversity, and support evolutionary processes to help species weather environmental change. At present, development of non-tree GCUs is being investigated by a group of specialists.

One example of a successful GCU is the NatureScot’s Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve (NNR) which was recognised for its ancient Caledonian pine forest in 2019. Thenceforth, the Woodland Trust has established more sites across the UK, with an additional 3 in Scotland for 6 tree species.

NatureScot Woodlands Officer and research co-author Jeanette Hall commented, “We have seen first-hand how successful the Gene Conservation Unit approach can be with the registration of our Beinn Eighe NNR and this research shows the exciting potential for working with land managers to expand this work to cover many more plant, animals and wild species.” [APBN]