California: A Biodiversity Hotspot
Conservation International names California as one of the world's biodiversity hotspots. A biodiversity hotspot is a region with a large number of species whose existence is threatened by human activity.
California's wildlife is particularly at risk because many of it's species are endemic (only found in California) and over 70% of natural habitat has been lost due to development and land degradation. One of the main challenges facing Conservation Biologists is effectively monitoring species distribution and establishing reliable baselines of a region’s biodiversity. This is key for early detection of species declines.
This project aims to address these problems in biodiversity monitoring by having community scientists work with researchers to:
- collect soil and sediment samples from across California to become frozen archives of what the community was like at that place at the time of collection
- sequence and analyze environmental DNA in the samples
The DNA indicates the presence of microbes, small eukaryotes, and the many plants and animals people try to monitor. This information will allow us to assess the biodiversity of different habitats throughout California. By openly sharing these methods and results, and creating strong networks, we can understand the potential of eDNA for conservation.
What Is Environmental DNA?
As animals and plants pass through an environment they leave behind traces of their presence in the form of feces, shed skin or fur, leaves, pollen, mucus, etc. All of these contain DNA, termed environmental DNA (eDNA), which is found in environmental samples, such as soil and sediment. Once collected, environmental samples can be analyzed using DNA sequencing technology to identify the community of organisms present in that location.
How Can Environmental DNA Be Used To Conserve Biodiversity?
Other methods of assessing biodiversity are often invasive, potentially with negative impacts on the fauna and flora they are assessing. Additionally, it is often difficult to locate and therefore monitor rare and endangered species.
Environmental DNA is a non-invasive method of detecting hard to observe, rare or endangered species. Organisms merely need to leave DNA as they pass through the environment rather than being physically trapped or sighted. As such, environmental DNA can be used establish a more accurate assessment of the species in an environment whilst causing less disturbance and harm to those organisms.
- Provide a more complete species lists, across multiple habitat types throughout California and over different seasons.
- Give land managers, including reserve and park managers, foresters, naturalists, conservationists, land developers, policymakers and scientists free access to these results.
- Develop a new strategy for understanding biodiversity in a particular area by comparing our eDNA data against existing species distribution maps.
- Understand how thoroughly and how often we need to sample to build a robust picture of biodiversity in California.