article / 27 January 2022

Measuring biodiversity from DNA in the air

This paper explores ground-breaking advances in terrestrial biomonitoring, demonstrating how DNA from terrestrial animals can be collected from the air under natural conditions.

Title: Measuring biodiversity from DNA in the air

Authors: Elizabeth L. Clare, Chloe K. Economou, Frances J. Bennett, Caitlin E. Dyer, Katherine Adams, Benjamin McRobie, Rosie Drinkwater, Joanne E. Littlefair

Journal: Current Biology


Impacts of the biodiversity crisis far exceed our ability to monitor changes in terrestrial ecosystems. Environmental DNA has revolutionized aquatic biomonitoring, permitting remote population and diversity assessments. Here we demonstrate that DNA from terrestrial animals can now be collected from the air under natural conditions, a ground-breaking advance for terrestrial biomonitoring. Using air samples from a zoological park, where species are spatially confined and unique compared to native fauna, we show that DNA in air can be used to identify the captive species and their potential interactions with local taxa. Air samples contained DNA from 25 species of mammal and bird including 17 known (and distinct) terrestrial zoo species. We also identified food items from air sampled in enclosures and detected four taxa native to the local area, including the Eurasian hedgehog, endangered in the UK, and the muntjac deer, a locally established invasive species. Our data provide evidence that airDNA is concentrated around recently inhabited areas (e.g., indoor enclosures) but that there is dispersal away from the source suggesting an ecology to airDNA movement which highlights the potential for airDNA sampling at distance. Our data clearly demonstrate the profound potential of air as a source of DNA for global terrestrial biomonitoring and ecological analysis.

Significance Statement: The global decline in biodiversity requires rapid non-invasive biomonitoring tools applicable at a global scale. In this study we collect environmental DNA from mammals and birds from air samples collected in a natural setting. Using only air, we identified 25 species of mammal and bird known to be in the area. Our dataset detected species at risk of local extinction and several confirmed predator-prey interactions. This approach will revolutionize terrestrial biodiversity surveys.

Read the full text on the bioRxiv website.

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