The barn owl (Tyto alba) is considered as a species of European concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) because of the decline of their populations all across the old continent. In the United Kingdom, at the north-western limit of the European distribution of the species, barn owls have also undergone a substantial population decline over the 20th century, particularly because of changes in the land use and the use of rodenticides. To date, no study has investigated the conservation status of barn owls inhabiting the United Kingdom using genetic tools, despite their insular condition could make them more prone to loss of genetic variation and inbreeding. Additionally, certain phenotypic differences existed between barn owls in UK and barn owls in the close populations of the North of France and the Netherlands. In UK, barn owls exhibit less melanic traits than in those other European regions, suggesting that UK barn owls could be a distinct evolutionarily significant unit not only because of their potential geographic isolation. Genetic studies urge in order to evaluate the conservation status of the species and the degree of genetic differentiation to the continental populations of barn owls.
The successful applicant will conduct the lab work to obtain neutral nuclear and mitochondrial markers from individuals that were collected in different locations across the UK by colleagues at the University of Lancaster, UK. Sequences of the MC1R gene, responsible for colour variation in continental barn owls, will be also obtained in order to understand the origin of colour differences between UK and continental barn owls.
During this project, the student will learn different genetic methods and analysis. The results of this study will be key to improve the conservation management of the barn owl but it will also provide new insights into the phylogeographic history of the species and into the genetic basis of phenotypic variation.
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