Supervisor: Dr. Asta Audzijonytė
Fellow: Dr. Denis Copilaş-Ciocianu
Period: 2020-08-05 – 2022-08-04
Funding: EU structural funds project funded from the European Social Fund
The rise of next-generation sequencing and DNA metabarcoding has revolutionized aquatic biodiversity research. Next-generation monitoring is cost-efficient and offers unparalleled accuracy and objectivity in species identification, proving to be an effective tool for biodiversity conservation as well as management of biological invasions. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of metabarcoding relies on species DNA barcode reference databases, which are often incomplete, even in well-studied areas. In this project, we aim to investigate the Ponto-Caspian assemblage of amphipod crustaceans, producing the first DNA barcode database of this group and providing an updated overview of their diversity. This diverse evolutionary radiation contains one of the most successful aquatic invaders currently spreading throughout Europe and North America, negatively impacting local biodiversity. What is more, most Ponto-Caspian amphipods are actually poorly known enigmatic species restricted to the Black and Caspian seas and surrounding areas, which are under high anthropogenic impact. Despite these pressing issues, these amphipods have been little studied from a molecular perspective, thus their taxonomy is plagued by ambiguous species descriptions and questionable higher classification, and some of the invasive species have even been constantly misidentified for decades. Thus, an accurate and taxa rich DNA barcode database would significantly improve species identifications via metabarcoding, leading towards efficient monitoring of invasive Ponto-Caspian amphipod species, and improved conservation measures for the numerous endemics. An overview of the taxonomic, ecological and morphological diversity would aid in formalizing the systematics of this group and potentially reveal important evolutionary patterns. As such, the results of this project will provide a foundation for future ecological, evolutionary and systematic studies, and will also have applied value in the management of biological invasions and conservation of native biodiversity.