Tracking Rare & Elusive Species

By on 8th March 2016

A New Rapid Approach For Identifying Endangered Species' DNA In The Field:

Dr. Natalie Schmitt
Dr. Natalie Schmitt

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.

Tiger-close-up-300x188Monitoring 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.

Latest News:

From a first round Sabin Snow Leopard grant from Panthera, we had sufficient funding for an initial proof of concept over 6 months with the Li Lab at McMaster University using fecal samples from captive snow leopards at the Toronto Zoo.

After 6 months of intensive work we are now at the stage where we have been able to successfully create multiple copies of a short sequence of snow leopard DNA on paper using a method known as Rolling Circle Amplification and have been able to link this to a colour response! We have also shown that the system is sensitive to a range of DNA concentrations.

This month (May 2017) I will spend time with field researchers from the Centre for Molecular Dynamics, Nepal as they monitor snow leopards in Upper Mustang. This will be an opportunity for some exploratory work in the field, to understand the conditions influencing the effectiveness of the method and to meet and form a long-term collaboration with the team.

Capacity building of the CMDN team in Nepal will be an integral part of the project.

Invitations & Endorsements

Dear Dr. Natalie Schmitt,

Dibesh Karmacharya
Dibesh Karmacharya

Greetings from the Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal! We are very excited about the possibility of having a DNA based field test platform to do species identification of various biodiversity samples. This type of testing platform will help us tremendously with our endangered species research, particularly on elusive species like snow leopards and tigers. We would be very happy to work with you in testing and validating the platform you are developing on non-invasive samples, such as scat (feces) to help identify species of our study interest.

Dibesh Karmacharya

Executive Director / Chairman: Center for Molecular Dynamics in, Kathmandu, NEPAL


To Whom It May Concern:

Carolyn Hamer Smith - Nepal - Endorsement Image small
Carolyn Hamer-Smith

We are proud to support this important initiative and the work of Dr. Natalie Schmitt. There may be as few as 3500 snow leopards remaining in the wild and many of these are found across the Himalaya. The AHF is working to protect this endangered species through partnerships with local communities but also through partnerships such as these. The work of Dr. Schmitt is critical to the survival of the snow leopard and we fully endorse this important research.

Carolyn Hamer-Smith

General Manager: Australian Himalayan Foundation


To Whom It May Concern:

Dr. Luke Hunter

This is a very exciting concept. A portable, easy-to-use and affordable kit for rapid analysis of genetic samples in the field will be a true innovation. It will save time and money for monitoring of snow leopards and other wild cat species and it will provide real-time data in the fight against the multi-billion dollar illegal wildlife trade.

Dr. Luke Hunter

President: Panthera



Map of Snow Leopard Monitoring Sites of CMDN

Range Of The Snow Leopard

Historic & Current Range Of The Tiger