DNA from taxidermy specimens explains genetic structure of British and Irish goats

February 28, 2017, Trinity College Dublin
Male billy goat from a feral herd in Mulranny, Co. Mayo, Ireland. Credit: John Joyce

Intensive selective breeding over the past 200 years and high extinction rates among feral populations has greatly reduced the genetic diversity present in domestic goat breeds. The effect these pressures have had on Irish and British goat populations has been explored in a landmark DNA study that compared modern-day domestic and feral goats with museum specimens from years gone by.

A collaborative team led by geneticists from Trinity College Dublin compared the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of 15 historical taxidermy specimens from Britain and Ireland and nine modern samples taken from Irish dairy and feral populations.

The team has just published their results in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters. Their work provides the first example in which DNA from taxidermy specimens is used to answer questions about livestock genetics.

Lara Cassidy, a researcher from Trinity's School of Genetics and Microbiology, is the first author of the journal article. She said: "There is an amazing wealth of genetic information locked away in taxidermic collections of animals that were - and still are - important for agricultural reasons. As such these collections are invaluable in helping us study the population history of these domesticated animals."

"Studying these specimens and comparing them with modern-day animals also helps to pinpoint existing populations that have retained some of the past genetic diversity, much of which has been lost to industrialized breeding. Retaining this diversity as an option for future breeding is very important, but some of these populations are being pushed to extinction."

The geneticists' study highlights an endangered feral herd living in Mulranny, Co. Mayo, as one such unique in need of protection. Mulranny goats show a genetic similarity to extinct 'Old Goat' populations that lived on the Isle of Skye in the 1800s. They can therefore be considered among the last remaining 'Old Irish' goats.

The 'Old Goat' populations of Britain and Ireland were once ubiquitous throughout the islands but today have been replaced in agriculture by improved Swiss breeds. The native 'Old Goats' are now only found in small feral herds, whose existence is under constant threat from habitat loss, culling and the ongoing impact of Swiss introgression.

The geneticists sampled a number of different 'Old Goat' herds among the 15 taxidermy specimens. The results showed these goats formed two genetic groupings, distinct from other European breeds. Importantly, all of the modern-day Irish dairy goats fell into a genetic groupings outside these two.

Dr Valeria Mattiangeli, one of the study's lead researchers, said: "This highlights the impact that transportation and mass importation of continental breeds has had on Ireland's goat populations, and underlines how selective breeding for agricultural purposes can impact the of animals."

Seán Carolan of the Old Irish Goat Society, who is a co-author of the journal article, said: "We hope this study will play a key role in saving what was and still is a diminutive creature that is both resilient and charismatic and that represents our cultural and pastoral history."

Explore further: Experiment shows goats capable of recognizing other goats by sight and sound

More information: Capturing goats: Documenting two hundred years of mitochondrial DNA diversity among goat populations from Britain and Ireland, Biology Letters, rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.or … .1098/rsbl.2016.0876

Related Stories

Ancient African cattle first domesticated in Middle East

March 27, 2014

Geneticists and anthropologists previously suspected that ancient Africans domesticated cattle native to the African continent nearly 10,000 years ago. Now, a team of University of Missouri researchers has completed the genetic ...

Ancient wild ox genome reveals complex cow ancestry

October 26, 2015

The ancestry of domesticated cattle proves more complex than previously thought, reports a paper published today in the open access journal Genome Biology. The first nuclear genome sequence from an ancient wild ox reveals ...

Recommended for you

Scientists shed light on biological roots of individuality

February 16, 2018

Put 50 newborn worms in 50 separate containers, and they'll all start looking for food at roughly the same time. Like members of other species, microscopic C. elegans roundworms tend to act like other individuals their own ...

Plants are given a new family tree

February 16, 2018

A new genealogy of plant evolution, led by researchers at the University of Bristol, shows that the first plants to conquer land were a complex species, challenging long-held assumptions about plant evolution.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.