Using environmental DNA to track wildlife


MISSOULA – Looking for wildlife can sometimes be quite difficult as there are over 1,300 endangered or species in the US alone.

Endangered species are those plants and animals that have become so rare they are in danger of becoming extinct and when a species is that rare, detecting them can be quite difficult. Researchers need to exhaust every available method to try and find these animals and now we may be one step closer to finding rare species across the globe by pulling their DNA from thin air.

DNA is shed from all animals and deposited as eDNA, which stands for environmental DNA. It is deposited in the environment from an animal’s skin or excrement. Animal eDNA has been measured from where it settles in blood, snow, soil, and even honey.

But that’s where it finally lands after floating around in the air. So, it seems simple, just collect some air to grab those floating particles. Now it’s not quite grabbing a jar, floating it around and closing the lid. What they did was use a vacuum-like pump and filtered it onto a control paper.

Imagine making a cup of coffee. You pour water over the grounds and the grounds get caught on the filter. So, the researchers are sucking air through a filter so they can catch any particles in the air on the filter. And what’s left behind is DNA.

A similar method has been used to survey for animals in water but until now a method had never been adapted for land. Wildlife populations are declining so fast that we can’t follow every population, and that’s why any new approach to monitoring wildlife is essential to keeping up with global change.

In their study published in Current Biology, researchers were able to identify 25 species of mammals and birds of DNA samples pulled from the air. They actually went to a zoo knowing it’s an area with many animals to test their hypothesis. They even were able to identify DNA from chickens and cows which were used to feed the carnivores in the zoo.

The researchers demonstrated that pulling DNA from the air means you don’t have to be super close to the animal — creating an unapped source of measuring wildlife data.

Collecting DNA from air has the potential to transform the way our natural realm is studied. It can act as a cost-effective and efficient tool to help out conservation efforts and track the rise and fall of wildlife species. That makes this new method of great global importance given the ongoing climate and biodiversity crisis.

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