Vacuuming DNA From the Air May Help Track Species, Improve Conservation

Species monitoring is essential to understanding and protecting populations. It’s also important in determining how environmental changes may be impacting wildlife. Now, a vacuum may prove to be an effective, non-invasive way to keep track of animals.

Two separate research teams – one in Denmark and one in the United Kingdom – used different methods to pull environmental DNA from the air within zoos. Their studies, both published in Current Biology, found that this approach allowed them to detect not just animals within the zoo, but those outside, as well. This could open the door to learning more about many species that may be a bit more difficult to track.

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Elizabeth Clare, leader of the UK study and assistant professor at York University in Canada, explains, “The non-invasive nature of this approach makes it particularly valuable for observing vulnerable or endangered species as well as those in hard-to-reach environments, such as caves and burrows. They do not have to be visible for us to know they are in the area if we can pick up traces of their DNA, literally out of thin air. Air sampling could revolutionise terrestrial biomonitoring and provide new opportunities to track the composition of animal communities as well as detect invasion of non-native species.”

Clare’s team investigated this approach by using sensitive filters attached to vacuum pumps. Within the more than 70 air samples collected from different spots around Hamerton Zoo Park, they detected DNA from 25 different species. That included animals within sealed buildings.

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The other team, led by University of Copenhagen associate professor Kristine Bohmann, collected air samples using a water-based vacuum and two blower fans with filters attached. They took 40 samples total in three different areas of Copenhagen Zoo. Using these methods, they were able to find DNA from nearly 50 species.

Bohmann says, “We were astonished when we saw the results. In just 40 samples, we detected 49 species spanning mammal, bird, amphibian, reptile and fish. In the Rainforest House we even detected the guppies in the pond, the two-toed sloth and the boa. When sampling air in just one outdoor site, we detected many of the animals with access to an outdoor enclosure in that part of the zoo, for example kea, ostrich and rhino.”

PHOTO: ADOBE STOCK / MIGUEL

It wasn’t just zoo animals, though. In London, the team detected DNA from Eurasian hedgehogs outside the zoo, while the researchers in Denmark detected red squirrel and water vole DNA. Interestingly, they even found DNA of the animals used as feed for the zoos, including cow, chicken, and fish.

While this approach requires further study, the researchers are hopeful it will help improve the way scientists monitor biodiversity and help support conservation strategies.

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