Collaboration with the CBRG-UM to discover species distinctions

Molecular genetics research to aid effective biodiversity conservation

At times species do not get recognised for their distinct genetic and biological importance in nature, and get lost in the midst of other similar species. Such similarly looking cryptic species are very common among certain groups of species, such as insects, but may be also present among other groups of organisms, including fish.

Recent studies, led by Prof Adriana Vella, PhD (Cambridge), the Conservation Biology Research Group of the Department of Biology, University of Malta (CBRG-UM) in collaboration with the NGO BICREF, have discovered the actual species distinction between the Painted Comber (Serranus scriba) found in Maltese waters and what was considered the same species in the Eastern Atlantic Ocean.

This case highlights how the efforts of the CBRG-UM’s continue to be at the fore in developing the use of innovative genetic methodologies to better understand local, regional and global biodiversity paving the way for effective management. The discovery is another of the various scientific outputs from the 60,000 Euros, BioCon_Innovate University of Malta Grant for Research Excellence, awarded to Prof Vella.

This important investigation and finding, which contributes to the updating of marine fish species lists, has been published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal ZooKeys.

Prof Vella’s CBRG-UM was set-up to focus on wildlife conservation biology using diverse research tools and techniques, including molecular genetics and genomics to investigate biological diversity from genes to ecosystems. Diverse species of local, regional and alien distribution have been identified genetically for the first time by this ongoing research. The CBRG-UM has been contributing to local and European projects since 1998 placing Malta on the map in relation to wildlife genetics and genomics for conservation.

The established expertise and knowledge of the CBRG-UM on an increasing number of terrestrial, freshwater and marine species have contributed to local and foreign students’ education and projects, apart from numerous scientific publications. This necessary and avant-garde de novo genomics research supplies accurate understanding of the biodiversity that provides for the economically important and life-sustaining goods, services and ecosystem functioning.

The urgent need to safeguard the fast depleting natural resources and wildlife depends on such ongoing research efforts to support efficient management and target the new EU 2030 Biodiversity Strategy to avert Earth’s sixth era of mass extinction induced by humans. In fact the species identified in the recently published work may have become extinct before being confirmed as a distinct species, requiring specific assessment and management.

This research on Serranus species, obtained its samples from fishermen to avoid having to sacrifice specimens for research, as specimens were already caught through the fishing industry. This also allows for better fisheries knowledge aiding sustainable fishing management in the future.

Maltese TV news link is here.

The species in the photo attached is the Butterfly-winged Comber (Serranus papilionaceus, Valenciennes 1832) which was erroneously considered to be the Painted Comber (Serranus scriba, Linnaeus, 1758).