A New Rapid Approach For Identifying Endangered Species' DNA In The Field:
Dr. Natalie Schmitt is excited to announce and launch her latest program that will ultimately benefit wildlife conservation programs and endangered species all around the world.
Her aim is to revolutionize our ability to rapidly identify endangered species by determining the DNA contained within specimens left behind by animals in the field – such as hair samples or fecal matter.
The program focuses on adapting current genetic methodology into a portable, inexpensive field genetic tool-kit that can be used for species identification by non-specialists.
The potential applications of this tool-kit are vast and highly significant.
One of the biggest challenges for wildlife conservationists is that many rare and shy species are seldom seen in the field. Their presence, however, can be confirmed from locating and identifying their droppings.
Monitoring the presence or absence of fecal material can help identify population declines and threats of local extinction, as well as assess the effectiveness of conservation actions or the outcome of re-introduction programs.
Yet another challenge is that current methods of fecal analysis are complex, time consuming and expensive.
This project will develop, test and refine an alternative method by using the tool-kit to track snow leopards and tigers as the research model.
The ultimate goal will be to cover many more species and applications.
“In biological terms, a ‘rare’ animal is one that is in low abundance or restricted geographical distribution or both, whereas an ‘elusive’ animal refers to one that has a low probability of detection,” explains Dr. Schmitt.
“As a conservation geneticist, documentary film maker and presenter I’ve always had a deep fascination with these mysterious and intriguing animals, particularly apex predators, as they offer insight into the health and wellbeing of our planet’s ecosystems,” she states.
Dr. Schmitt further emphasizes that these ‘keystone species’ play a critical role in maintaining the structure of an ecological community, affecting many other organisms and helping to determine the types and numbers of various other species within the community.
“Without them, an ecosystem can collapse,” she warns, “These species however, prove tremendously challenging to study and it has taken science many years of visionary development to enable us to begin to understand and monitor these important animals.”
Feces and other animal remains are often misidentified in the field, leading to presumed species presence in an area where it does not occur, thereby wasting limited conservation resources. For example, research has indicated that even experienced researchers mistakenly identify fox feces as snow leopards more than 50% of the time.
(Janecka et al. 2008; pers comms, Dibesh Karmacharya, Centre for Molecular Dynamics, Kathmandu (CMDN)).
Using the snow leopard and tiger as a model, the programs aims to create a field kit that will easily and effectively identify species from fecal and other samples rapidly and without the need for expensive sequencing equipment.
Long Term Vision:
Dr. Schmitt’s long term vision is to leverage further funding to develop the product for other species of interest and wider applications, to create training tools such as online resources, a translatable manual for education on the kit, explore the viability of the kit in community conservation and ecotourism, and, given the kits will be designed to work with any type of DNA, use the product to assist in monitoring the illegal wildlife trade.