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Conservation role for hated insect

PUBLISHED: 15:28 19 May 2009 | UPDATED: 09:38 06 July 2010

They are the tiny terrors that creep in your cupboards to ruin your food.

They are cursed around the globe for destroying staple foods including flour, cereals, biscuits, pasta, beans and nuts.

They are the tiny terrors that creep in your cupboards to ruin your food.

They are cursed around the globe for destroying staple foods including flour, cereals, biscuits, pasta, beans and nuts.

Now the flour beetle has found some friends - in the shape of scientists in a Norfolk laboratory.

And the University of East Anglia (UEA) researchers hope the diminutive destroyer will play a key role in managing and helping endangered species.

The eighth-of-an-inch-long insect - officially tribolium castaneum - will be the model in a £400,000 study into the consequences of inbreeding, launched at UEA this summer.

Inbreeding is a potential problem when species decline across the world, and conserving genetic variation is recognised as a priority by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

When populations become isolated or reduced because of loss of habitat or exploitation, the gene pool is reduced which forces inbreeding between relatives, and therefore losses in genetic variability.

This results in an increase in 'bad genes', which were previously hidden, leading to a range of problems. The problems mainly affect reproduction, which further reduces the population of the species and drives it closer to extinction.

Funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the project will evaluate which specific reproductive traits are affected by inbreeding, and how they hit the potential survival of a species.

Once inbreeding population depression and its causes are discovered, the project will determine how much new variability must be re-introduced to rescue an inbred population from extinction.

The results of the three-year study will help managers of conservation and captive breeding projects recognise when inbreeding is a problem, how it progresses, and how best to manage or reverse it.

Dr Matthew Gage, of UEA's school of biological sciences, said: “When a species is under threat, it is difficult to be sure whether inbreeding or other stresses are responsible for declines in numbers.

“Our previous work on wild rabbits in the natural environment implicates sperm as being sensitive to inbreeding. However, these large-scale experimental trials in the laboratory will shed new light on the relative importance of inbreeding as a conservation concern, identify which traits are most sensitive, and therefore could help us recognise populations under threat of inbreeding and manage their recovery.”

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