A rapidly emerging survey technique is being used for the first time by undergraduates surveying Reaseheath’s ponds for the presence of great crested newts (Triturus cristatus).
Using environmental DNA (eDNA) sampling to confirm the presence of rare or hard to survey freshwater species is proving to be highly effective and becoming widely used by professional ecologists in the field. This survey method is now included in the Technical Advancements in Conservation module for our BSc (Hons) in Wildlife Conservation and Ecology and our undergraduates have been out on site learning the technique.
Animals and plants which inhabit water leave minute traces of eDNA which can be detected during analysis of water samples. This method is highly effective at determining the presence of great crested newts – a European Protected Species – and is being increasingly used by ecologists assessing water bodies on potential development sites.
We plan to carry out eDNA surveys on all 12 ponds on Reaseheath’s estate, identify where populations exist and focus our efforts on their future management. As eDNA does not indicate the size or health of the population, our undergraduates will also continue to monitor identified sites through torchlight surveys, egg searches and by capturing, marking and counting individuals.
Collecting eDNA involves our undergraduates selecting 20 evenly spaced sites round a pond and collecting water samples from each, following strict survey protocol to avoid sample contamination. DNA sinks and will often be present in larger amounts close to the pond bottom, so samples must be taken from water which is more than 10cm in depth but above mud or sediment.
The samples are mixed and transferred by pipette into tubes containing preservation solution which are then sent offsite for laboratory analysis.
Bob Richardson, who aims to become an ecological consultant after completing his degree, was one of the first to be introduced to the method. He said: “It’s been really exciting and worthwhile learning new skills which will be relevant to me in the future. I’m looking forward to receiving the results and to taking the campus surveys further.”
HE Advanced Practitioner and Course Leader Kev Palmer added: “Fortunately Reaseheath has a reasonably healthy sub-population of great crested newts across several ponds but using eDNA sampling and analysis will enable us to efficiently locate any further sub-populations and to concentrate on their management.
“This initial method of surveying is efficient and cost effective in comparison to traditional survey methods, which require considerable time and manpower. It is fast becoming the method of choice throughout the industry and will be a useful skill for our undergraduates in their future careers.”