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Science and Innovations

DNA Offers New Way to Survey Wildlife

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U.S. Forest Service, Coconino National Forest
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Scientists at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott are working on a new way to survey wildlife—by collecting DNA from streams and rivers. It’s less expensive and less stressful to animals than traditional survey methods. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports.

The research team collected water samples from the Verde River and Fossil Creek. They sequenced DNA in the water left from the fur, blood, or urine of nearby animals, and compared that to a worldwide database of species. Hillary Eaton, forensic biologist, says "With these molecular techniques, we can go out at any time of day, 24 hours day… and we can get, so far, the same results as the traditional surveys."

The technique doesn’t offer exact population numbers but it can show if a species is common or rare. It can also turn up animals biologists didn’t expect to find.

Conservation biologist Matthew Valente describes one surprise: "We did not detect smallmouth bass DNA in our first samples from the Verde, which was odd because they’re the most abundant fish there according to traditional surveys. However, we did detect DNA from another species of bass, known as the redeye bass." That’s an invasive fish from Alabama. It had been misidentified for decades.

Valente says more accurate information about biological communities can lead to better management. 

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Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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