Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Ancestors Help Save Red Squirrels' Skin

Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Ancestors Help Save Red Squirrels' Skin

Article excerpt

Byline: By Tony Henderson

Red squirrels who lost their skins up to 150 years ago are helping in the bid save today's animals who are in full retreat before their advancing grey cousins.

Newcastle University squirrel expert Dr Peter Lurz has been studying pelts from 200 animals to investigate their genetic make-up.

The skins are in old naturalists' collections dating back to 1861 in the Hancock Museum in Newcastle, Tullie House Museum in Carlisle, London's Natural History Museum and the Swedish Museum of Natural History.

Dr Lurz and scientists from the university's School of Biology have found that a small number of red squirrels found in Cumbria have a unique genetic make-up which sets them aside from those found in other areas of Britain and the continent. These are important because a greater genetic diversity can help the reds' battle to survive in the longer-term.

But Dr Lurz warns that the genetically-special Cumbrian squirrels could become extinct within the next 20 years unless extra conservation measures are taken ( such as captive breeding.

There are probably less than 1,000 of these animals left and they are dwindling in the face of the American grey squirrel, which out-competes reds for food and passes on a deadly parapox virus which can kill reds within two weeks.

Although Cumbria has a red squirrel conservation programme, researchers say this may not be enough.

The research suggests red squirrels in the North-East have adapted well to the man-made conifer plantations of the region, such as Kielder.

It also showed many squirrels have recent European ancestry due to introductions of red squirrels from the Continent and Scandinavia to the UK over the last 150 years.

But there is no evidence of these introductions occurring in Cumbria, where many squirrels were found to resemble 18th Century descriptions of the species.

In the last 10 years red squirrels have virtually vanished from the southern parts of the Lake District. …

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