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Understanding drivers of disease in the red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris), a threatened UK native species

   School of Biological Sciences

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  Prof A Meredith, Dr Rob Ogden  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

Project offered for Ker Memorial PhD Studentship

The red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) is an iconic species of notable conservation concern in the UK, having suffered a marked range contraction over the last century due to habitat loss, and competition and pathogen transmission from the introduced grey squirrel (S. carolinensis). Conservation management actions remain intensive and challenging given the grey squirrel’s widespread and expanding distribution. Squirrelpox viral disease (SQPx) currently remains the most significant infectious population-level threat to red squirrels. Outbreaks are associated with the presence of grey squirrels with seropositivity to squirrelpox virus1. Other notable infectious conditions of red squirrels include leprosy, only recently identified in red squirrels and caused by Mycobacterium leprae or M. lepromatosis2, and enteric adenoviral disease.

Disease occurrence varies between exposed subpopulations of red squirrels. Initial studies indicate that red squirrel populations in the UK have low genetic diversity relative to continental Europe, including at the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) which plays a key role in immune function3.

There is a pressing need for applied research to further inform the conservation management of red squirrels1. How could we improve the health of the UK red squirrel population and their resilience to disease to help prevent further population decline?

As above, this project will explore risk factors for disease occurrence in red squirrels, building on current work investigating their genetic diversity, and explore additional risk factors associated with the wider ecological context. The findings will have applicability to population and/or translocation management.

This project will utilise archived samples and those collected on an ongoing basis from an established red squirrel surveillance scheme and associated research projects.

Training environment

The PhD student will be embedded in our Conservation Science group at the R(D)SVS, which is a multi-disciplinary group of wildlife health and genetics specialists.

PI Anna Meredith has long-standing research expertise in red squirrel disease. Anna and Katie Beckmann will provide wildlife health expertise and liaison with our established red squirrel post-mortem disease surveillance project and allied research.

PI Ogden (group leader) has expertise in wildlife genomics and a long history of red squirrel conservation science, including a dataset of 96 whole genome sequences from Scottish squirrels. He will bring technical expertise and supervisory experience from multiple successful studentships to the project.

We will explore opportunities for collaboration with other institutes, such as the Moredun Research Institute, as well as with the Scottish Wildlife Trust, NatureScot and Forest and Land Scotland.

Training and skills

The student will benefit from a unique opportunity to work in a world-leading multi-disciplinary team, gaining experience of molecular genetics, epidemiology and infectious disease ecology, in addition to sample collection, data analysis and scientific communication.

These technical competencies will be complemented by a wide range of transferable skills including critical thinking, scientific writing, communication and presentation skills (to scientific and lay audiences), teamwork and budget management, to name just a few. Edinburgh PhD students have also access to a wide range of additional training courses and resources to help develop particular personal interests alongside their main postgraduate project.

This breadth of activities that comprises a PhD at the vet school creates multiple career pathways for doctoral graduates to pursue


1Sainsbury AW, Chantrey J, Ewen JG, Gurnell J, Hudson P, Karesh WB, Kock RA, Lurz PWW, Meredith A, Tompkins DM (2020) Implications of squirrelpox virus for successful red squirrel translocations within mainland UK. Conservation Science and Practice 2020;2:e200.
2Avanzi C, del-Pozo J, Benjak A, Stevenson K, Simpson VR, Busso P, McLuckie J, Loiseau C, Lawton C, Schoening J, Shaw DJ, Piton J, Vera-Cabrera L, Velarde-Felix JS, McDermott F, Gordon SV, Cole ST, Meredith AL (2016) Red squirrels in the British Isles are infected with leprosy bacilli. Science 35 (6313) 744-747
3Ballingall K, McIntyre A, Lin Z, Timmerman M, Matthysen E, Lurz P, Melville L, Wallace A, Meredith A, Romeo C, Wauters LA, Sainsbury AW, McInnes CJ (2016) Limited diversity associated with duplicated class II MHC-DRB genes in the red squirrel population in the United Kingdom compared with continental Europe. Conservation Genetics, 17: 1171-1182. DOI 10.1007/s10592-016-0852-3

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