Page last updated at 11:53 GMT, Monday, 6 April 2009 12:53 UK

Welsh pine marten DNA 'different'

Pine marten (Pic: Tony Braithwaite)
A male pine marten in its summer coat (Picture: Tony Braithwaite)

The Welsh pine marten is genetically different from those in Scotland and Ireland, experts have discovered after DNA testing old specimens.

The highly elusive creature is the second rarest carnivorous mammal in the UK and sightings are extremely rare.

Numbers in Wales are low, and there are plans to introduce pine martens from other areas.

Now researchers say this could damage the animal's future, as it may have evolved to deal with local conditions.

Pine martens are mainly found in the Cambrian mountains area from north west Wales to Carmarthenshire, with further pockets in Carmarthenshire, Snowdonia and possibly Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire.

There have only been a handful of firm sightings of the creature in half a century, and the DNA tests were carried out on a collection of pine marten skull and bones, with the most recent dating from 1948.

The work was carried out by the Vincent Wildlife Trust in conjunction with the Waterford Institute of Technology in Ireland.

If the Welsh animals were shown to be genetically distinct it might result from them evolving in the landscape of Wales so be better suited to the Welsh environment than elsewhere in Britain
John Messenger

The trust now want to hear from anybody who may have a stuffed pine marten or skin, bones or skulls which came from Wales to enable more genetic testing to be carried out.

John Messenger from the trust said the researchers had had a hunch the Welsh pine marten might be different after looking at collections of skins in its collection.

They extracted DNA from samples at the National Museum of Wales and discovered the animals had a different haplotype (set of genetic markers) to those in Scotland and Ireland.

Mr Messenger said: "If the Welsh animals were shown to be genetically distinct it might result from them evolving in the landscape of Wales so be better suited to the Welsh environment than elsewhere in Britain.

"In recent years reintroductions have become very popular and we were a bit concerned that none of the proposals in the past had given any thought that pine martens might be quite different and therefore quite special.

"The DNA that was extracted was a DNA type defined as a haplotype I. All the animals in Scotland are haplotype A and in Ireland haplotype P.

"For us, it was really quite exciting because it showed they were different from the others in the UK.

"It's certainly something we need to take into consideration if restocking were to occur."

The trust has been trying to capture a live pine marten since 1995 without success but Mr Messenger said somebody would now be working full time on that, with a view to radio-tracking one of the animals in its natural environment.

They will also be looking to collect droppings and hair samples using a hair-trapping device to extract live DNA to compare with the "ancient DNA" they have tested so far.

An estimate in the 1990s suggested there could be around 50 animals in Wales, although Mr Messenger believes that may have been over-generous.

Pine martens are most populous in Scotland and usually produce between one and five offspring in the spring. They can live into double figures in captivity but are unlikely to live to more than four in the wild.

They prefer coniferous woodland and hunt for small mammals, birds, insects, berries and carrion.

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