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Retracing the history and planning the future of the red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) in Ireland using non-invasive genetics

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The Eurasian red squirrel’s (Sciurus vulgaris) history in Ireland is largely unknown, but the original population is thought to have been driven to extinction by humans in the seventeenth century, and multiple records exist for its subsequent reintroduction in the nineteenth century. However, it is currently unknown how these reintroductions affect the red squirrel population today, or may do so in the future. In this study, we report on the development of a DNA toolkit for the non-invasive genetic study of the red squirrel. Non-invasively collected red squirrel samples were combined with other samples collected throughout Ireland and previously published mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) data from Ireland, Great Britain and Continental Europe to give an insight into population genetics and historical introductions of the red squirrel in Ireland. Our findings demonstrate that the Irish red squirrel population is on a national scale quite genetically diverse, but at a local level contains relatively low levels of genetic diversity, and there is also evidence of genetic structure. This is likely an artefact of the introduction of a small number of genetically similar animals to specific sites. A lack of continuous woodland cover in Ireland has prevented further mixing with animals of different origins that may have been introduced even to neighbouring sites. Consequently, some of these genetically isolated populations are or may in the future be at risk of extinction. The Irish red squirrel population contains mtDNA haplotypes of both a British and Continental European origin, the former of which are now extinct or simply not recorded in contemporary Great Britain. The Irish population is therefore important in terms of red squirrel conservation not only in Ireland, but also for Great Britain, and should be appropriately managed.

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We would like to thank Síle and Seán Murphy for access to their woodland at Mahon Bridge, Co. Waterford and Andrew Doherty for his help locating suitable survey sites near Faithlegg, Co. Waterford. Our reviewers kindly provided very helpful reviews, and their suggestions helped us to improve the discussion and overall clarity of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Denise B. O’Meara.

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Communicated by: Jan M. Wójcik

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O’Meara, D.B., McDevitt, A.D., O’Neill, D. et al. Retracing the history and planning the future of the red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) in Ireland using non-invasive genetics. Mamm Res 63, 173–184 (2018).

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