New Tracking Method Uses Animal Footprints to Unlock DNA Secrets

In the realm of wildlife conservation, a novel method has surfaced, poised to revolutionize how we track and study elusive species.

This technique, centered around DNA analysis from animal footprints, is garnering attention for its potential to provide insights into the lives of creatures like the enigmatic polar bear.

Polar bears are a vulnerable species in the Arctic region.
Photo: Pexels
Polar bears are a vulnerable species in the Arctic region.

Understanding the Science of DNA Footprint Analysis

A team of scientists, spearheaded by Dr. Melanie Lancaster of the World Wide Fund for Nature Global Arctic Program, has pioneered this method. as Phys.org reports, by analyzing environmental DNA (eDNA) present in snow track footprints, they gathered crucial data without the need for direct animal contact. This approach, inspired by forensic science, focuses on extracting and examining skin cells left behind in animal tracks.

“It is particularly challenging, expensive, and time-consuming to find polar bears in the Arctic, let alone count them and understand how they are coping with climate change,” said Dr. Melanie Lancaster of the World Wide Fund for Nature Global Arctic Program, senior author of the study in Frontiers in Conservation Science.

This new tracking method is less invasive compared to traditional techniques.
Photo: Pexels
This new tracking method is less invasive compared to traditional techniques.

Elisabeth Kruger of the World Wildlife Fund underscored the method’s non-invasive nature.

“Many Inuit express concern about invasive research methods,” Kruger said. “People are concerned about the welfare of the individual polar bear and the health and safety of people who may harvest the bear later. This is one of the reasons we are so excited about new methods like this – the person collecting the sample never needs to even see or be seen by the polar bear.”

This aspect is particularly vital in addressing ethical concerns around wildlife research.

Researchers can study polar bears without direct contact using this method.
Photo: Pexels
Researchers can study polar bears without direct contact using this method.

Groundbreaking Research Findings

The research, which extended to various species including Alaskan polar bears and Swedish Eurasian lynxes, has produced encouraging results.

Dr. Micaela Hellström of MIX Research Sweden AB highlighted the pristine condition of DNA retrieved from these snow tracks, thanks to the cold temperatures acting as natural DNA preservers.

“The tracks usually contain fresh cells, and the DNA is intact because of the cold ‘storage’ temperature. DNA that has passed the gut is much more degraded and therefore more challenging to work on,” Hellström told Earth.

The success rate of DNA retrieval from these tracks is noteworthy. An impressive 87.5% of the wild polar bear tracks recorded by researchers yielded nuclear DNA. Similarly, 59.1% of wild lynx tracks provided retrievable DNA. These findings open new avenues for studying animal populations, behaviors, and effectively managing human-animal conflicts.

The DNA footprint tracking method could transform our understanding of elusive species.
Photo: Pexels
The DNA footprint tracking method could transform our understanding of elusive species.

Expanding Horizons: Broader Applications of the Technique

This method’s non-invasive nature allows for larger sample sizes, a significant advantage over traditional tracking methods. Dr. Lancaster envisions this technique gaining traction among the polar bear research community, with active involvement from hunters, volunteers, and Indigenous communities, reports KDHNews. The researchers are optimistic about extending this method to other species in snowy habitats, having already demonstrated its effectiveness with lynx and snow leopards.

The technique could be extended to other species in snowy environments.
Photo: Pexels
The technique could be extended to other species in snowy environments.

Implications for Future Conservation Efforts

The implications of footprint DNA analysis are far-reaching in the field of conservation. By offering a humane and efficient alternative to traditional tracking methods, this technique not only ensures the well-being of the animals but also fosters greater community involvement in conservation efforts. The potential for this method to transform our understanding of animal populations and ecosystems is vast.

The emergence of DNA footprint analysis is a landmark development in wildlife conservation. It marks a shift towards more ethical and effective research methods, promising to enhance our understanding of elusive species and their interactions with changing environments.

As this method gains wider acceptance, it stands to significantly influence conservation strategies, ushering in a new era of wildlife study and protection.

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