DNA Offers New Way to Survey Wildlife

Mar 7, 2019

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.

Elk herd
Credit U.S. Forest Service, Coconino National Forest

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.