Museum samples provide novel insights into the taxonomy and genetic diversity of Irish red grouse

Freeland, Joanna R.; Anderson, Sarah; Allen, David and Looney, Declan (2007). Museum samples provide novel insights into the taxonomy and genetic diversity of Irish red grouse. Conservation Genetics, 8(3) pp. 695–703.



The taxonomic status of red grouse in Ireland has been the subject of considerable debate over the past century. Irish red grouse are usually classified as Lagopus lagopus scoticus, which is the same subspecies as that found in Britain, but some ornithologists believe that native Irish red grouse constitute an endemic subspecies, namely L. lagopus hibernicus. The considerable decline of Irish red grouse over the past century, along with possible hybridization with introduced grouse from Britain, have highlighted the need to resolve their taxonomic status as part of a biodiversity management plan. However, genetic analysis of samples from a single point in time will provide limited insight into potentially confounding historical events such as hybridization and introgression. We therefore compared mtDNA sequences from both current and historical samples of the two putative subspecies, scoticus and hibernicus, to see if they are or were genetically distinct. Red grouse from Britain and Ireland shared mitochondrial haplotypes, and our historical data suggest that this is unlikely to be the result of recent hybridization and introgression. These findings, combined with a general lack of documented differences in behaviour and ecology, suggest that Irish red grouse should remain classified as L. lagopus scoticus. At the same time, we found evidence that a significant amount of genetic diversity has been lost from Irish red grouse over the past century, presumably as a result of diminishing population sizes and fragmentation of extant populations. A loss of habitat, combined with the declining numbers and genetic diversity of Irish red grouse, justify their designation as an All-Ireland Priority (Red List) species and a Northern Ireland Priority Species for conservation.

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