The Unionidae (Mollusca) is the largest of six freshwater mussel families being among the most endangered fauna in the world and globally in decline . Besides the fact that these animals are indeed of practical interest, owing to their worldwide imperilled conservation status, they are also extremely interesting from a biological perspective; first, they are important providers of aquatic ecosystem services; secondly, they require a host (often a narrow range of fish species) for larval (glochidia) development and dispersal; and finally Unionid mussels are characterized by an unusual pattern of mitochondrial (mtDNA) inheritance called doubly uniparental inheritance (DUI).
Although these animals have all these extraordinary characteristics, basic life history data, estimates of population size and structure, and assessments of population genetic structure are lacking or sparse for many (endangered or not) freshwater mussel species worldwide, including Iberia, where the real situation is poorly understood. In the wider context of biodiversity conservation, the current proposal wishes to fill the gap of knowledge on the status of the Unionidae family in the Iberia. The aims of this proposal are: to understand both the present day population dynamics and the historical biogeography of these bivalves; to clarify their taxonomic diversity and phylogenetic affinities; and to understand the fundamental mechanisms of mtDNA evolution in these species. We will use an innovative combination of complementary approaches: by considering the complex genetic interactions among different species from the same habitats, comparing their (genetic) relationships with other European populations, and also by describing their main biological features: distribution, population structure, reproductive season, larval stage and host fish.
From an ecological point of view, expected results from this project would help out to elucidate distributional patterns as well as shed light on the main abiotic and biotic factors responsible for their distribution, population structure and growth. From a conservation and management perspective, the goals of our proposal are sound because the expected outcomes can be used to the development of future conservation strategies by the identification of Evolutionary Significant Units (ESUs) and Management Units (MUs). This project is both a field- and lab-based challenging, proposal. The PI is an early stage researcher with published work on evolutionary biology, spanning from evolutionary genetics, biogeography, phylogenetics and mtDNA evolution. The other team members' scientific activity is focus on Ecology and Physiology and they also have a lot of experience in field sampling techniques in freshwater habitats, which is of crucial importance for the successful implementation of the proposal. The major equipment for the field work will be provided by the hosting institution (CIIMAR), as well as the other participating institutions (UTAD and IPB); the lab-based tasks of the proposal will be done at CIIMAR laboratories, which are well equipped for the execution of such research.
The availability of all of these resources would considerably facilitate the early stages of the project, as well as minimize the costs of the entire proposal. With a well-qualified team and a solid research program, the project results are expected to be published as several articles in leading international journals, not only on freshwater/invertebrate biology journals, but also on wider range topic journals as Evolutionary Genetics, Conservation, Ecology and Physiology.
Finally, this project is strongly related to all the partners long-term research interests and also provides a good venue to combine research with education: advanced training will be provided to several students, including two MSc that we intend to hire, and one PhD dissertation is also expected to come out from this project (personal grant will be required upon acceptance of this project).