Dr Paul O'Donoghue

Posted on 16th July 2014

A scientist from the University of Chester has made a huge leap towards conserving the critically endangered Scottish Wildcat, potentially saving the species from extinction.

The Scottish Wildcat (photograph taken by Adrian Bennett)
The Scottish Wildcat (photograph taken by Adrian Bennett)
Our goal is to establish populations of genetically pure wildcats. We are determined not to settle for second best or to settle for a bunch of tabbies that bear a resemblance to wildcats. Protecting anything less than the pure Scottish wildcat will condemn the species to extinction.
Dr Paul O'Donoghue

A scientist from the University of Chester has made a huge leap towards conserving the critically endangered Scottish Wildcat, potentially saving the species from extinction. 

Dr Paul O’Donoghue, from the University’s Department of Biological Sciences is the Chief Scientific Advisor behind the Wildcat Haven Project; a team which has been working to help protect the Scottish Wildcat, a species threatened by hybridisation through interbreeding with feral domestic cats, by pro-neutering its primary threat.  

Over a decade, the population of Scottish Wildcat has plunged from thousands to less than 35, largely due to cross-mating with feral domestic cats, however there is now real hope that the species can be saved from extinction.  

After five years of intensive planning, trials and field work, funded primarily by grants from the US foundations, the Wildcat Haven Project, established by the Scottish Wildcat Association, is confident that a 250 square mile haven in the West Highlands now appears feral cat and feline disease-free according its latest survey. 

The team now hopes that wildcats may be able to thrive in the area, secure from the further threat of hybridisation. 

Dr O’Donoghue explained: “Cats of any kind are notoriously difficult to survey, however a summer survey turned up nothing and over the last six months we’ve really saturated the area with live traps, cameras, vets and ecologists, and had lots of people from the local community out looking as well. The only feral cats seen have already been neutered, which means the population should collapse naturally within the next couple of years. Once verified, this will be the first time feral cats have been removed from such a large mainland area anywhere in the world.” 

Based in Ardnamurchan and Sunart, on a peninsula with a small land bridge, the area is protected by a large, heavily monitored and camera trapped buffer zone at a geographic bottleneck which feral cats cannot migrate past. Further surveys are being carried out and the local community asked to report any sightings, but now the project has its eyes firmly set on the next phase. 

Dr O’Donoghue added: “Our goal is to establish populations of genetically pure wildcats. We are determined not to settle for second best or to settle for a bunch of tabbies that bear a resemblance to wildcats.  Protecting anything less than the pure Scottish wildcat will condemn the species to extinction. 

“The behaviour of feral cats and pure wildcats is very different, Scotland’s ecology needs the true wildcat and, outside of a wildlife park enclosure, this is the only place in the UK where they are safe from hybridisation.”

Scottish Wildcat 2014

The Scottish Wildcat (photograph taken by Adrian Bennett)
Caption:
The Scottish Wildcat (photograph taken by Adrian Bennett)
Posted on 16th August 2012

Geneticists from the University of Chester are developing a test that could crack the Scottish wildcat’s DNA code and save one of Britain’s rarest and most iconic species from extinction.

A Scottish wildcat - but is it a hybrid or a purebred? Picture supplied by Neville Buck, of The Aspinall Foundation.
A Scottish wildcat - but is it a hybrid or a purebred? Picture supplied by Neville Buck, of The Aspinall Foundation.
If we can identify enough wildcats to develop a viable breeding programme, we can then look at ways of conserving this beautiful species and preventing one of Britain’s most incredible, iconic animals from disappearing from the face of the earth.
Dr Paul O''Donoghue

To date there has been no truly definitive way of identifying whether existing individual cats are pure-bred or hybrids and the latest  estimates currently suggest there are, at best, only 100 pure Scottish wildcats remaining in the wild, at worst, none.

“The Scottish wildcat is heading for imminent extinction, primarily due to hybridisation with feral, domestic cats,” explains Dr Paul O’Donoghue, Senior Lecturer in Biology at the University (pictured inset).

While there are ways of telling the difference between hybrids and pure-breds – such as the fusion of bones on its head, the shape of its jaw, and the length of its gut – these can only be examined once the animal is dead.

With living wildcats, identification currently involves examining their coat characteristics (pelage), which is difficult to do as camera trap images can be unreliable, often providing unclear or inconclusive pictures of the elusive creatures.

“Due to such difficulty in distinguishing pure wildcats from hybrids, there are currently no truly meaningful conservation activities being carried out to address this issue,” said Dr O’Donoghue.

“The only way to solve this problem with living cats is to develop a specific genetic marker set that can definitively differentiate between hybrids and pure wildcats, with absolute statistical confidence.

“This will allow the remaining wildcat populations to be screened for hybridisation and will directly inform future conservation efforts.”

For the past year Dr O’Donoghue has been working in collaboration with Dr Ross McEwing at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland WildGenes Lab in Edinburgh, on developing a diagnostic genetic test to provide solid evidence of how many true Scottish wildcats actually exist, either in captivity or the wild.

He has been given access to the very best ‘pelage perfect’ samples – taken from museum specimens – to provide a ‘gold-standard’ reference sample, the oldest of which is aged 132 years and comes from the British Museum.

Work on the test, which is being funded by the University of Chester, the Aspinall Foundation and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, Bosack Kruger foundation and the Summerlee Foundation has now begun in the biology labs at Chester.

DNA from the British Museum sample is now being extracted and by using cutting edge technology to scan the whole genome – which contains the entirety of an organisms’ hereditary make up – the team will be able to examine 63,000 genetic markers.

The same will be done for domestic cats and detailed analysis of the two DNA sequences will help the team to identify the pure wildcat reference marker.

“From this we can develop a subset of definitive wildcat markers to form the basis of the diagnostic test, which we hope will be ready by the end of the year,” said Dr O’Donoghue.

The results will enable animal conservationists to identify any pure-bred Scottish wildcats in captivity and – it is hoped – the wild, enabling new breeding and conservation programmes that could save this animal from extinction.

“I am hopeful that if we look hard enough we will be able to find pure Scottish wildcats out there in their natural habitat,” said Dr O’Donoghue. “And if we can identify enough to develop a viable breeding programme, we can then look at ways of conserving this beautiful species and preventing one of Britain’s most incredible, iconic animals from disappearing from the face of the earth.”

Scottish wildcat

A Scottish wildcat - but is it a hybrid or a purebred? Picture supplied by Neville Buck, of The Aspinall Foundation.
Caption:
A Scottish wildcat - but is it a hybrid or a purebred? Picture supplied by Neville Buck, of The Aspinall Foundation.

Can genetic test save the Scottish wildcat from extinction

A Scottish wildcat - but is it a purebred or hybrid? Picture supplied by Neville Buck, Neville Buck, The Aspinall Foundation.
Caption:
A Scottish wildcat - but is it a purebred or hybrid? Picture supplied by Neville Buck, Neville Buck, The Aspinall Foundation.
Posted on 13th October 2010
From the rise of new technologies in teaching to a light-hearted look at the law, a whole range of topics will be discussed at the University of Chester this month as the Autumn Festival gets under way.
The Festival programme, which is organised by the University in conjunction with the Shell Chester Literature Festival, features several guest speakers who are guaranteed to intrigue, inform and entertain.

The event launched yesterday,Wednesday, with the Haygarth Annual Public Health Lecture when Professor John R Ashton CBE will discussed changes to the NHS in the aftermath of the general election.

Below are just some of the highlights of the Autumn Festival programme which complement the wider range of public lectures that the University is opening up to the community throughout the course of the year. For more information on these events visit www.chester.ac.uk/public-lectures.

Thursday, October 14, 7pm, Beswick Lecture Theatre:
Professor Derek France, a Senior Teaching Fellow in the University's Department of Geography and Development will present his inaugural lecture Bringing Digital Technologies into Teaching and Assessment. The lecture will exemplify the rise of new technologies such as podcasting, digital stories and other Web 2.0 applications such as Twitter which are enabling new innovative methods of teaching and assessment. Free event, admittance by ticket only. Contact j.westcott@chester.ac.uk or call 01244 511344.

Tuesday, October 26, 7pm, Binks Building:
Dr Paul O'Donoghue, Lecturer in Biological Sciences, will present his lecture Namibia's Forgotten Rhinos. Namibia currently holds more than half of the world's population of black rhinos, and yet very little is known about these animals. This talk will give an insight into how his conservation work with the rhinos in Namibia will save the species from extinction. Entry price is £3 and proceeds from the evening will go directly to Save the Rhino Trust - Namibia.

Friday, October 29, 1pm, Westminster Building:
Judge Robert Seymour, - also known as Charles Courtley of Wig Begone - An Overview of 30 Years in the Legal Profession - will take a light hearted look at the law. Recalling his own experiences, Roberts - whose 19-year career in military justice saw him trying cases in the most unlikely places from a mountain-top hut in Cyprus to a kindergarten in Germany - will talk about the criminal justice system and explain the court martial system and how it differs from civilian jurisdiction. Free event.

Friday, November 12, 7pm, The Chapel:
Founded in 2007 The Onslow String Quartet is an amateur ensemble which takes its name from 19th-century composer George Onslow. Entry price is £5 and includes a complimentary drink. Proceeds from the evening will go to the Kisiizi Project, which aims to develop long-term links between the Church of Uganda Kisiizi Hospital, the Countess of Chester Hospital and the University.

The University will also be playing host to the following Shell Chester Literature Festival highlights throughout October:

Seeing Stars - Simon Armitage and The Cheshire Prize for Literature Awards Evening; Michael Wood - The Story of England; Dr Graham Atkin - ‘Thou met'st with things dying, I with things newborn'; Professor Lynn McDonald - Florence Nightingale at First Hand; Sue Birtwistle - The Making of Cranford; Dr Emma Rees on Zoo - Short Stories from The Cheshire Prize for Literature; Professor Alan Wall - Medicinal Literature; Andrew Graham-Dixon - Caravaggio: A Life in Sacred and Profane; and Aphrodite's Hat - Sally Vickers in conversation with Dr Francesca Haig.

The University's Autumn Festival runs until November and tickets are available from the University's Exton Park reception, or by calling 01244 511000. For tickets to Chester Festivals events call 0845 241 7868 or visit www.chesterfestivals.co.uk.

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