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Queens’s scientists reveal first settlers to colonise Ireland

18.04.2007
You may well ask the question, where did the animals and plants of modern day Ireland and Britain come from? Published in the prestigious journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society, scientists at Queen’s University Belfast have uncovered evidence that stoats survived in Ireland at the coldest point of the last Ice Age, 23,500 years ago.

The research has revealed that despite few animals or plants surviving the millennia of freezing cold and ice, the Irish stoats had real staying power. The Irish lineage of these small carnivores that eat mice, rabbits and birds is unique according to the research.

The scientists reached their conclusions by studying the wiry mammal’s DNA collected from museum collections and gamekeepers.

Explaining the research findings, Dr Robbie McDonald, Manager of Quercus at Queen’s, explained: “These tenacious carnivores probably survived the extreme cold at the peak of the last Ice Age by living under the snow and eating lemmings, just as they do in Greenland today.

“Irish stoats are a diverse and ancient lineage, this study provides the first compelling evidence that a species of mammal found in Ireland today actually survived throughout the worst of the Ice Age weather.

“The Irish fauna is a very unusual mix of native and introduced species, but we tend to overlook the unique nature of the Irish gene pool of many species, such as stoats and hares. This work helps identify which species should be a priority for conserving the Irish natural heritage.”

Genetic research has found that the Irish lineage of stoats is about 23,500 years old, compared to the British lineage, which is about 12,000 years old.

Stoats are found over a wide range of temperature conditions ranging from warm temperate to artic. While they currently occur in the high Artic of Greenland and Canada, feeding on lemmings, it is known from fossils that lemmings survived in Ireland providing a potential food supply during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM).

Lisa Mitchell | alfa
Further information:
http://www.qub.ac.uk

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