Population structure and genetic connectivity reveals distinctiveness of Irish harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) and implications for conservation management

Kristina Steinmetz*, Sinéad Murphy, Oliver Ó. Cadhla, Emma L. Carroll, Aubrie B. Onoufriou, Debbie J. F. Russell, Michelle Cronin, Luca Mirimin

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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The identification of discrete intraspecific units, such as genetically informed management units (MUs), is important to effectively develop and implement conservation strategies for protected species. Harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) occurring in Irish waters are currently viewed as a single nationwide panmictic population (and hence MU), although this assumption is not based on any knowledge of population structure because of the lack of available genetic data. Thus, the present study used mitochondrial control region sequences and between nine and 11 microsatellite loci from harbour seals from Ireland and Northern Ireland (up to = 123) and adjacent UK/European waters (up to = 289) to provide insights into the genetic population structure and diversity of harbour seals in the areas studied. Within the island of Ireland, genetic analyses revealed the presence of three genetically distinct local populations, characterized by high genetic diversity, hereby defined as: East Ireland (EI), North-west & Northern Ireland (NWNI), and South-west Ireland (SWI). Using previously published and newly generated data, a subsequent wider scale analysis revealed that the EI and SWI local populations were genetically distinct from neighbouring UK/European areas, whereas seals from the NWNI area could not be distinguished from a previously identified Northern UK metapopulation. Migration rate estimates showed that NWNI receives migrants from North-west Scotland, with NWNI acting as a genetic source for both SWI and EI. The present study provides the most comprehensive genetic assessment of harbour seals in European waters to date, with findings indicating that conservation strategies for harbour seals in Irish waters should be amended to accommodate at least three genetically distinct local populations/MUs. The use of approaches considering both ecological and genetic parameters is recommended for future assessments and delineation of units of ecological relevance for conservation management purposes.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)160-178
Number of pages19
JournalAquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems
Issue number2
Early online date28 Dec 2022
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2023


  • Genetics
  • Management unit
  • Marine mammal
  • Microsatellite loci
  • mtDNA
  • Non-invasive sampling
  • Phoca vitulina
  • Seals


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