DNA is the molecule of life. It’s found within all living things and coupled with the environment; it’s responsible for determining what makes you. However, with modern technology, DNA can do much more than that.
DNA can tell us about our ancestry, who we are related to both immediately and back through the mists of our evolutionary past. It can tell us about migration patterns, how groups of animals have moved across the globe in the past and how novel migrations arise from different sources. It can even help us to save a species in trouble, which may be necessary in the case of the endangered undulate ray.
Marine biologists intend to take DNA samples from 120 individuals of captive undulate rays, in order to assess how diverse the population is. In a similar fashion to common zoo practice, this genetic information will allow biologists to selectively breed the individuals in order to avoid inbreeding, which can have disastrous effects.
This programme is crucial, as these charismatic rays are already listed as endangered on the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species, most likely as a result of commercial fishing. The timing is perfect, as it coincides with an ongoing breeding programme which started in 2010. Since the project began there have been 29 successful births, and this project will hopefully contribute to this rising number.
The breeding programme is a precaution in case numbers of undulate rays in the wild fall to a critical level. This will be a cue to start action and begin to reintroduce individual rays to the wild.
Ideally, the programme will be extended to sample DNA from wild ungulate rays as well. This would allow proper assessment of how well the species are doing in the wild, and could be used as an early warning system that numbers are declining further.
Healthy rays can live up to 20 years, and grow to over 85cm in length. They are found both in the Mediterranean Sea and off our own British shores in the Atlantic. Their well known egg cases, commonly called ‘mermaids purses’, are often washed up on UK beaches.