Using environmental DNA to track wildlife

MISSOULA – Searching for wildlife can be quite difficult at times, as there are more than 1,300 endangered or threatened species in the US alone.

Endangered species are those plants and animals that have become so rare that they are in danger of extinction and when a species is so rare it can be very difficult to track them down. Researchers must exhaust every available method to try and find these animals and now we may be one step closer to finding rare species around the world by extracting their DNA from scratch.

DNA is rejected from all animals and deposited as eDNA, which stands for environmental DNA. It is deposited in the environment from the skin or feces of an animal. Animal eDNA has been measured from where it nests in blood, snow, soil and even honey.

But that’s where it eventually lands after floating in the air. So, it seems simple, just collect some air to catch those airborne particles. Now it’s not really taking a jar, floating around and closing the lid. What they did was use a vacuum like pump and filter it on a control paper.

Imagine you are making a cup of coffee. You pour water over the coffee grounds and the coffee grounds remain in the filter. So the researchers suck air through a filter, so that they can catch any particles in the air on the filter. And what remains is DNA.

A similar method has been used to study animals in water, but until now, one method had never been adapted for land. Populations in the wild are declining so rapidly that we cannot track every population, which is why any new approach to wildlife monitoring is essential to keep pace with global changes.

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

The researchers showed that by extracting DNA from the air, you don’t have to be super close to the animal — creating an untapped source for measuring wildlife data.

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

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