Centres And GroupsMolecular Ecology Research Group

Molecular Ecology Research Group

The Molecular Ecology Research Group (MERG) was set up at the Waterford Institute of Technology in 2000. The initial aim of the group was to develop DNA techniques for monitoring pine marten populations in Ireland. An efficient novel real-time PCR method has been developed to identify species from non-invasively collected samples. The method  has many advantages over traditional methods including sensitivity, cost and time required for analysis. The method is now being applied to wide range of mammals.

Thematic Areas

  • Population genetics of pine marten in Co. Waterford

  • Small mammal monitoring using real-time PCR

  • Pine marten behaviour in a highly fragmented habitat

  • Development of DNA techniques to monitor red and grey squirrels


MERG in the Media

The molecular ecology group and collaborators from Newfoundland were involved in the making of a 15 minute section of the programme “Living the Wildlife”. This was screened on RTE1 in May 2009. Click here to view.


Contact Us

Dr Catherine O'Reilly
Molecular Ecology Research Group (MERG)
Department of Chemical & Life Science
Waterford Institute of Technology
Cork Road

Tel:      051 834070    

Email:  [email protected]

MERG Fulltime Faculty Members

Dr Catherine O’Reilly BSc, PhD

Dr Peter Turner BSc, PhD


MERG Postgraduate Research

In the 2007/2008 academic year, there were 3 registered postgraduate students in the Molecular Ecology Research Group studying at PhD level.

Current Research Projects

  • Radiotelemetry to track pine marten in County Waterford

  • DNA based identification of small mammals using real-time PCR

  • Phylogeography of watervoles in the North-east of England

  • Development of real-time PCR assays for species identification of mustelids

  • Sex typing mustelids using real-time PCR

  • Population genetics of pine marten in County Waterford

  • Mitochondrial haplotyping of pine marten from museum samples from England, Wales and Ireland

  • Forest carnivore scat surveys of England and Wales

  • Development of DNA based identification of red and grey squirrels from field signs and hair samples.

Squirrel Survey

In 2007 the Irish squirrel survey reported the first documented sightings of grey squirrels in Co. Waterford. In partnership with Waterford County council MERG instigated a project in 2008 aimed at monitoring the status of red and grey squirrels in the area. Novel methods of tracking squirrels will be developed in WIT.  DNA can be obtained from hair collected using hair traps and from feeding remains such as cone cores. This can then be used to identify the species (red or grey) and in time will allow us to identify individual squirrels and so to estimate their numbers and learn more about their behaviour. As part of the Waterford County Council Invasive Species symposium in November 2008 MERG organised a field workshop (Workshop photos) to encourage members of the public to look out for signs of squirrels and to report sightings of red and grey squirrels in the area. It is hoped that public participation will provide information and samples to the survey project.

Pine Marten

Since 1997 MERG has been developing DNA based methods to track pine marten. These methods are based on scats collected from forest tracks and hair collected using hair traps. Hair traps are made from plastic pipe and contain bait (usually raw chicken) and sticky patches to collect hair.  Tests have been developed to identify species and sex of samples and DNA fingerprinting is used to identify individual animals. More recently radiotelemetry and camera traps have been used in combination with DNA analysis to estimate numbers, territorial area and to learn about behaviour. This work will provide information on what forest management practices and plantings are best suited to pine marten populations. The use of DNA fingerprinting will allow a census of the pine marten in the area and provide insight into their family relationships. It is important for these fragmented populations to be able to interbreed and to do this they must travel across un-forested areas. Agricultural practice may also therefore be important to their conservation, but at present little is known of how often and where marten travel outside the forest.

Small Mammal Survey

The experience gained in the pine marten project has been applied to small mammals. The conventional way to survey small mammal populations is to capture them, they can then be identified, marked and released. This is expensive and time consuming and has welfare implications. MERG are currently undertaking the DNA analysis for a trial survey organized by the Mammal Society in the UK. Alongside conventional live traps bait tubes have been used to collect faecal samples (NIGHT Photos). DNA from these is being analysed to identify the species. Hair tubes have also been used to collect samples for DNA analysis (SHREW Photo).

Statham, M., Turner,P.D. and O'Reilly, C. (2005) Use of PCR amplification and restriction enzyme digestion of mitochondrial D-loop for identification of mustelids in Ireland. Irish Naturalists' Journal 28, 1-6.

O’ Mahony, D., O’ Reilly, C. and Turner, P. (2006). National Pine Marten Survey of Ireland 2005. COFORD Connects Environment 8.

Statham, M., Turner, P.D. and O'Reilly, C. (2007) Molecular Sex Identification of Five Mustelid Species. Zoological Studies 45, 600-608.

O’Reilly, C., Statham, M, Mullins, J., Turner, P.D. and  O’Mahony, D. (2008) Efficient species identification of pine marten (Martes martes) and red fox (Vulpes vulpes) scats using a 5’ nuclease real-time PCR assay. Conservation Genetics  9, 735-738.

Moran, S, Turner, P., and O'Reilly, C. (2008) Non-invasive genetic identification of small mammal species using real-time PCR. Molecular Ecology Resources 8, 1267–1269.

McDevitt, A.D. Edwards, C.J., O’Toole, P., O’Reilly, C. and Carden, R.F. (2009) Genetic structure of, and hybridization between, red (Cervus elaphus) and sika (Cervus nippon) deer in Ireland. Submitted.

Mullins, J., Statham, M., Roche,T., Turner, P. and O’Reilly, C. (2009) Non-invasive genetic methods for monitoring pine marten in Ireland. Manuscript in preparation.


Siobhan Moran, Mammal Society Easter Symposium 2008.

Jacinta Mullins, Towards elucidating the genetic structure of pine marten populations in Ireland Mammal Society Easter Symposium 2008.

Jacinta Mullins, A census of pine marten populations in Ireland using genetic analysis of hair and faeces,26th Mustelid Colloquium Eotvos Lorand University, Budapest. August 2008.

Jacinta Mullins, Non-invasive sampling of the pine marten (Martes martes) in Ireland Conservation Genetics Summer School Chateau Liblice, Czech Republic. August 2008.

Catherine O’Reilly, Real-time PCR techniques for species identification and sex-typing in mustelids, 26th Mustelid Colloquium Eotvos Lorand University, Budapest. August 2008.

Peter Turner, Application of DNA testing to pine marten scat surveys, Snowdonia National Park/Vincent Wildlife Trust pine marten survey weekend, Snowdonia, 10/11th November 2007.

Peter Turner, DNA Analysis in Pine Marten Studies, Wales Mammal Group, Wales Mammal Conference, University of Aberystwyth, 4th/5th July 2008.

Peter Turner, The use of DNA in the verification of field-collected scats, Vincent Wildlife Trust, England and Wales Pine marten Survey Workshop, Rodbaston College, 3rd-5th October 2008.