This year, following our participation in teaching part of the MSc course on Ecological Applications at Imperial College, we supported two students undertaking MSc research projects. We were delighted to invite Rosie Drinkwater and Luis Perez Calderon to present their findings to us in Guildford earlier this week, accompanied by their supervisor Dr Helen Hipperson.
Luis’ project covered the use of environmental DNA (eDNA) present in water samples to detect and assess populations of smooth newts and great crested newts (GCN). Luis was able to identify a correlation between the biomass of amphibians present and the quantity of eDNA in the water. The technique is already approved by Natural England for the detection of GCNs, but not for population or biomass estimates. Further research is needed, but these results suggest that it should be possible to develop eDNA-based tests to estimate population size too.
Rosie’s work focused on the use of eDNA to detect and estimate populations of signal and white clawed crayfish from water samples. In laboratory conditions, where crayfish were kept in tanks, detection was possible, and there was a correlation between the biomass of signal crayfish and the quantity of eDNA found. In trials using samples collected from the field, the results were less conclusive. However, other field studies involving different species of crayfish have shown promising results. Imperial College is currently re-running some of the analyses using a more sensitive method, and Helen believes that this may lead to a breakthrough. We should find out shortly.
Detection of rare species, protected species, and early identification of invasive species, are likely to be some of the key initial applications for eDNA tests, so applied research such as this is particularly important.