Researchers have pioneered a groundbreaking technique for safeguarding polar bear populations by examining DNA found in their snow tracks. This innovative, non-invasive method, also applicable to other cold-climate animals like lynxes and snow leopards, presents a safer and more efficient means of acquiring crucial data for wildlife conservation.
Polar bears, emblematic figures of the Arctic, remain elusive and vulnerable. Thorough monitoring of their populations is imperative for conservation efforts. However, due to the challenges associated with locating and tracking polar bears, essential data regarding population size and connectivity remains elusive. Scientists have now introduced a novel tool: DNA analysis derived from skin cells shed by polar bears in their snow footprints.
Dr. Melanie Lancaster, from the World Wide Fund for Nature Global Arctic Programme and senior author of the study in Frontiers in Conservation Science, emphasizes the difficulty in finding and tracking polar bears in the Arctic. Counting them and comprehending their response to climate change is an arduous, expensive, and time-consuming endeavor.
Innovative Conservation Techniques
Inspired by forensic methodologies that can be applied to minute and degraded DNA samples, scientists have devised a method that eliminates the need to physically capture polar bears, a process fraught with stress and danger for both the bears and humans. Additionally, it is a concern for some indigenous communities. Instead, scientists can examine environmental DNA, which is naturally shed by these animals.
Elisabeth Kruger, from the World Wildlife Fund and one of the article’s authors, highlights the concerns expressed by Inuit communities regarding invasive research methods. The welfare of individual polar bears and the safety of those who may later interact with the bears are paramount. This innovative approach ensures that the collector of the sample need not see or be seen by the polar bear, addressing these concerns.
Environmental DNA: A Non-Invasive Solution
Environmental DNA is commonly deposited through animal feces. However, the quality of DNA from this source may not always be suitable for the level of individual analysis required for conservation purposes. For territorial animals like lynxes and snow leopards, sampling feces could also impact their behavior. Therefore, scientists turned to skin cells found in snow tracks.
Dr. Micaela Hellström, the lead author from MIX Research Sweden AB, explains that these tracks usually contain fresh cells with intact DNA due to the cold “storage” temperature. DNA that has passed through the digestive system is more degraded and challenging to work with.
Field Work and Analysis
Scientists collected snow from the tracks of Alaskan polar bears and Swedish Eurasian lynxes, both in the wild and in captivity. They also obtained snow from tracks made by a captive snow leopard. Additional materials like hair, saliva, and mucus were sampled to confirm the accuracy of the genotypes obtained from the tracks.
In the wild, low concentrations of DNA were retrieved from the tracks. However, it was possible to recover nuclear DNA from 87.5% of wild polar bear tracks and 59.1% of wild lynx tracks. 13 polar bear samples from the wild could be genotyped, identifying 12 distinct individuals.
Although only 11% of the lynx tracks could be genotyped initially, the success rate substantially increased when tracks were collected by trained personnel. They were able to retrieve nuclear DNA from 76% of samples collected by trained personnel and genotype 24% of those samples.
A Hands-Off Approach
This technique holds immense potential for enhancing the conservation of these animals. It offers valuable insights into their populations and behavior, while also aiding in managing human-animal conflicts through accurate identification. Despite its lower success rate, the ease of sample collection can significantly expand sample sizes.
Dr. Melanie Lancaster expresses hope that this method will be embraced by the polar bear research community, involving hunters, volunteers, and indigenous communities as a new way to gather information about polar bears. Furthermore, there is optimism that this method can be extended to other species inhabiting snowy environments, as demonstrated with lynxes and snow leopards.
Reference: “Capturing environmental DNA in snow tracks of polar bear, Eurasian lynx and snow leopard towards individual identification” by Micaela Hellström, Elisabeth Kruger, Johan Näslund, Mia Bisther, Anna Edlund, Patrick Hernvall, Viktor Birgersson, Rafael Augusto, and Melanie L. Lancaster, 11 October 2023, Frontiers in Conservation Science.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Arctic Wildlife DNA Analysis
What is the main purpose of analyzing DNA from polar bear snow tracks?
The primary purpose is to monitor polar bear populations, understand their behavior, and aid in their conservation efforts, especially in the face of climate change.
How does the DNA analysis of snow tracks benefit conservation?
It provides a non-invasive method to collect crucial data without stressing or endangering polar bears. This technique also expands sample sizes for research.
Is this DNA analysis technique limited to polar bears?
No, it can be applied to other snow-dwelling animals like lynxes and snow leopards, making it a versatile tool for broader wildlife conservation.
What are the challenges in traditional polar bear population monitoring?
Finding and physically capturing polar bears in the Arctic is challenging, expensive, and time-consuming, making it difficult to obtain accurate population data.
How does this method address concerns from indigenous communities?
By not requiring direct contact with polar bears, it addresses concerns about the welfare of the bears and the safety of those involved in research, respecting the perspectives of indigenous communities.
What other benefits does environmental DNA analysis offer?
Environmental DNA analysis allows for the examination of fresh DNA in snowy footprints, which is more intact and reliable than DNA that has passed through the digestive system.
What potential does this technique hold for the future of wildlife conservation?
It has the potential to revolutionize wildlife conservation by providing a less invasive means of monitoring and understanding animal populations and behavior in snowy environments.
Are there plans to expand the application of this method to other animals?
Yes, scientists hope to extend this method to other animals living in snowy environments, as demonstrated with lynxes and snow leopards, broadening its utility in conservation research.
More about Arctic Wildlife DNA Analysis
- Frontiers in Conservation Science: The original research paper discussing the DNA analysis of polar bear snow tracks.
- World Wide Fund for Nature Global Arctic Programme: The organization involved in the research, dedicated to global wildlife conservation.
- World Wildlife Fund: Another organization that contributed to the research, known for its conservation efforts worldwide.