The brown bear population in northern Italy is the result of a recent translocation and is of conservation concern also due to the high impact of human activities in the modern Alpine ecosystem. Diet studies are particularly important for endangered species or for population of conservation interest because accurate knowledge of animal diet is fundamental for evaluating the ecology of animals in their habitat. The general goal of the proposed project is to develop a universal and standardized tool for comprehensive molecular non-invasive diet analysis of omnivorous mammals, to validate it using the brown bear population in northern Italy, and finally to evaluate its use for understanding brown bear ecology in this region highly impacted by human presence. In particular, I intend to 1. set up a universal protocol based on DNA barcoding and next generation sequencing to identify the taxon of plant and animal components in bear faeces; 2. use the developed protocol to assess the diet at the population level; 3. determine diet at the individual level to address differences by age classes, sex, geographic areas, and for bears responsible for damages; and 4. compare results of molecular diet analysis with results from microscopic examination of faeces for bears in the region. This study is expected to reveal the potential of the new approach for diet analysis for more extensive ecological investigations that will contribute to bear conservation in the region. Information gained from this study will be transferred to local agencies involved in educational programs for promoting bear awareness and acceptance. In addition, the implementation of this project, involving mobility of the fellow to a European research institution leader in the application of DNA barcoding to ecological studies, offers a unique opportunity for professional development through training in research under the supervision of an experienced scientist and in new techniques in molecular ecology.
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