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Environmental DNA collected from water used to monitor whales

The use of eDNA, or environmental DNA, is an increasingly common practice in conservation. DNA found in the environment has been used to detect endangered turtles in Vietnam, and has also been used in demanding environments like the Amazon and Mt. Everest. 

In an attempt to monitor whale and dolphin populations, many of which are endangered, researchers from three universities and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have turned to eDNA collected from water samples. This method can be used in concert with other monitoring methods, including acoustic surveys. It’s even possible that eDNA may one day be used to identify individual animals. 

Whales and dolphins are increasingly in need of protection and careful monitoring. Plans by the Biden administration, the state of New York (where the study was carried out) and others to increase offshore wind administration pose potential threats to whales. This on top of threats from fishing gear, whaling, pollution and strikes with ships.

Environmental DNA could be one more tool to help understand and protect whales and dolphins. WCS has already been working to develop guidelines for wind energy to make it as whale and dolphin friendly as possible.       

“Determining how cetaceans and other threatened marine animals use coastal habitats is critical to their effective conservation,” said study lead author Dr. Elizabeth Alter of California State University.

“By generating eDNA data in parallel with survey data, it will be possible to gain a clearer understanding of how this tool can be used in management and conservation contexts to monitor species of conservation concern over large marine ecosystems.”

Not only are whales and dolphins detectable with eDNA, so are some of their prey species, such as fish. Monitoring whales, dolphins, and smaller animals may provide a greater understanding of the state of various populations and the habitats that are suitable for them. 

Study co-author Dr. Howard C. Rosenbaum is the director of WCS’s Ocean Giants Program and a senior scientist at the NY Aquarium.

“Innovation and application of new techniques, such as the possibility of using eDNA, that leads to having better information about distribution of whales, dolphins and their prey is so important today, especially where potential impacts in these habitats may be increasing human activities,” said Dr. Rosenbaum.

The research is published in the journal Frontiers

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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