Environmental DNA (eDNA) has been a recent gold mine in research. We recently reported on how eDNA was captured from the air in a world first and how scientists were able to use this technique to distinguish zoo animals from it. This incredible tool can help ecologists study animal behavior and geography for conservation purposes.
In a collaborative effort, researchers from California State University, CUNY, Wildlife Conservation Society, and Columbia University have recently utilized eDNA to study the population of dolphins and whales that reside in the New York Bight, a stretch of waters alongside Long Island and New Jersey.
How does eDNA monitoring work?
The first step is for scientists to collect a small sample from the body of water being investigated. As the fragments of genetic material in the sample are very small, a special kind of experiment called a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is carried out to amplify the sequence.
Once completed, these resulting pieces of DNA are sequenced and compared to genomes of other organisms to find a match. If the DNA sequences pair up, it means this creature is present in this region. Further details of this innovative technique are published in the journal Frontiers.
How will it help conservation?
Finding animals utilizing eDNA is not limited to small water regions. It can be applied to the huge open ocean. By combining this genetic analysis technique with current methods, like visual observation and acoustic monitoring, the position and number of organisms in bodies of water can be more accurately monitored.
“Determining how cetaceans and other threatened marine animals use coastal habitats is critical to their effective conservation. By generating eDNA data in parallel with survey data, it will be possible to gain a clearer understanding of how this tool can be used in management and conservation contexts to monitor species of conservation concern over large marine ecosystems,” explained lead author Dr. Elizabeth Alter.
Relaying important information about the distribution of organisms and their prey allows for closer monitoring of ecosystems, as scientists can have a better grasp of population sizes and understand if a species is in danger. This way preventative methods to preserve the ecosystem can be put in place before it’s too late.
Source study: Frontiers – Using Environmental DNA to Detect Whales and Dolphins in the New York Bight