How do you find a rare animal that lives in swift-flowing streams, hides under enormous rocks, and swims faster than Michael Phelps? The critter we’re looking for is the hellbender (aka snot otter, grampus, devil dog, the list goes on…). The traditional way find these prehistoric-looking salamanders involves several steps: 1) recruit assistants with fast reflexes, 2) wait while everyone squeezes into wetsuits, 3) work your butts off lifting rocks, 4) blindly feel around for something squishy, and 5) hope you get lucky. But now there’s an easier way to do this, and it’s inspired by forensic science. That’s right, the same DNA technology that police use to solve murder cases can help us find endangered species. Biologists simply collect a gallon or two of stream water and analyze it for the species’ DNA. If we find hellbender DNA, we can be darn sure there’s a snot otter nearby. Scientists call this technique environmental DNA, or eDNA.
A big advantage of eDNA is that surveys can be done quickly across a broad region. Through the Smithsonian, I’m coordinating eDNA surveys across the hellbender’s entire northeastern range (VA, WV, MD, PA, and NY). This massive undertaking is a result of the combined efforts of VA Dept of Game & Inland Fisheries, The Wilds (a wildlife facility in Ohio), MD Dept of Natural Resources, Western PA Conservancy, and Buffalo State College.
Most hellbender eDNA samples in Virginia are being collected by citizen scientists, thanks to a new partnership between Smithsonian, the Master Naturalists, UVA-Wise, and VA Tech. It’s a perfect opportunity for the average Joe (or Joanne) to participate in scientific research, because they get a concrete result – either hellbenders are present, or they’re not. Furthermore, the survey technique is straightforward. We don’t have to be as careful as Crime Scene Investigators since there’s less chance of sample contamination (the situation would be different if our bodies contained hellbender DNA).
Of course, eDNA is not as simple as scooping up some water and throwing it into a fancy machine. There are still many questions and challenges with this technique. If you want to learn more about eDNA, check out this fascinating article published today in the Nautilus.