Environmental DNA: Scientists identify animal species from the air

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Scientists from the University of Copenhagen (Denmark), Queen Mary University (UK) and York University (Canada) were able to capture environmental DNA in air samples from zoos, which allowed them to identify the species that live there. The findings were published in two studies in the journal Current Biology and represent a milestone, since, until then, only soil or water samples were used to obtain this information.

The Danish researchers installed three air filters and were able to identify 30 mammals, 13 birds, four fish, an amphibian and a reptile. They found DNA from some animals in captivity and even from pests such as rats and mice. To give you an idea, the group was even able to filter small fragments of DNA from fish used to feed other animals at the zoo.

The second group, made up of researchers from the UK and Canada, focused on tracking the animals’ movements. The team collected 72 samples and used a laboratory technique to amplify the small amount of material so that they had enough to identify genetic markers from individual species. With this, it was possible to identify 25 species of animals, 17 of which in captivity, such as meerkats, sloths and donkeys. They also found some animals that were just passing through the zoo, like squirrels.

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According to the articles, the discovery is good news for biologists trying to find out where endangered animals live, breed or migrate, and then protect those areas. Tracking mammals that move miles each day and are cautious in their movements is an arduous task, after all, and experts are clamoring for new techniques to detect environmental DNA.

The researchers argue that detecting an animal’s movement patterns over time, rather than just knowing its current position, is key to protecting its habitat and preserving the planet’s biodiversity.

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