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The alarming rate at which wildlife is disappearing due to habitat degradation, climate change, and illegal human activities in protected areas is a global concern. Africa, in particular, faces the looming threat of losing over half of its bird and mammal species by 2100. In this dire scenario, the need for effective wildlife tracking methods has never been more critical. Traditional methods such as camera trapping and line transects have proven valuable but are often expensive, labor-intensive, and less suitable for tracking animals in dense rainforests. However, recent scientific research has unveiled a groundbreaking technique – environmental DNA (eDNA) – that offers a promising solution to monitor species and map biodiversity cost-effectively and efficiently.
Source: Henrik’s Lab/YouTube
Intrigued by the potential of eDNA, an international research team embarked on a mission in Uganda‘s Kibale National Park, a haven of biodiversity often referred to as the “primate capital” of the world. The park is home to a staggering 13 species of non-human primates, including endangered Red colobus monkeys and chimpanzees.
The researchers aimed to determine whether eDNA could be effectively utilized in tracking wildlife in this challenging rainforest environment. They hypothesized that animal DNA could settle on leaves and serve as a traceable source for monitoring species and biodiversity. To test this idea, the team ventured into the dense tropical forest armed with a mere 24 cotton buds. Their objective was to swab as many leaves as possible within a three-minute window. To identify the source of the DNA, the team sequenced short DNA fragments, or barcodes, unique to each animal. These barcodes were then compared to a comprehensive library containing the DNA of all sampled animals.
Expecting limited success due to the rainforest’s harsh conditions (hot days, cold nights, high humidity, and precipitation leading to rapid DNA degradation), the researchers were astounded by the results from the DNA sequencer. In just over an hour, with only 24 cotton buds, they managed to detect over 50 species of mammals and birds, including a frog. Impressively, each cotton bud yielded traces of nearly eight different animal species, representing a wide range of sizes and diversity.
The detected animals spanned from the massive and endangered African elephant to the sunbird. Among them were remarkable species such as the hammer-headed fruit bat, elusive L’Hoest’s monkey, endangered ashy red colobus, and the forest giant squirrel, to name a few. The method even successfully identified various bird species, including the endangered gray parrot.
The ability to detect such a high diversity of animals, coupled with the efficiency of the leaf swabbing method, suggests its potential for large-scale biomonitoring efforts in rapidly changing areas of the park.
Environmental DNA has the potential to revolutionize wildlife monitoring and biodiversity management. Unlike traditional tracking methods, leaf swabbing requires minimal equipment and training, making it accessible to a broader range of individuals, including staff at the Uganda Wildlife Authority, field assistants, and biologists working in the forest.
Furthermore, as DNA sequencing technology becomes more accessible and affordable, the scalability of this method increases. It holds tremendous promise for biodiversity monitoring on a larger scale, aiding Conservation efforts, and providing valuable insights into ecosystem changes.
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