SNAKES are on the decline across the North East, according to experts at Sunderland University.
Researchers want to find out if adders are in danger in certain parts of County Durham.
University boffins fear this is leading to inbreeding among colonies of the UK’s only venomous snake.
The university has teamed up with Durham Wildlife Trust and Durham County Council to carry out a genetic survey of the adder population.
They are testing DNA samples to reveal how much genetic diversity there is among the adder population.
This is the first survey of its kind in the region, and is a result of growing concerns that adders are at risk as their numbers decline through loss of natural habitat and breeding grounds.
Samples of the adders’ skins are being collected over the next few weeks, as the snakes emerge from hibernation and start shedding.
Dead snakes are also being analysed in the laboratories at the university, checking for markers which suggest inbreeding has taken place.
Dr Noel Carter, a senior lecturer in molecular biology, said: “The adder project highlights a growing concern for wildlife in the UK, maintaining genetic diversity in isolated populations.
“With our research we hope to generate some preliminary data for substantial research, with a view to protecting this species for generations to come before they become dangerously inbred.
“While genetic surveys of adder populations have taken place in other areas of the UK, this is the first in the North East, looking initially at the Durham area, amid fears that dwindling populations will lead to inbreeding depression, a condition that could cause problems such as mutations from missing eyes to deformed spines, to adders being born dead.”
Researchers will compare DNA samples in the university’s new multimillion-pound Sciences Complex, to see if the smaller clan groups are genetically impoverished.
If the levels of inbreeding can be pinpointed by researchers, results will strengthen the case for better protection off adder populations.
As well as adders, if the project shows success, Dr Carter says the research may extend to other wildlife species considered “at risk”, such as the water vole.