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Curtin Uni Researchers Develop Novel eDNA Toolkit

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New Curtin University-led research used eDNA technology to track the movements of a critically endangered fish in South Africa in the hope of safeguarding its future.

The Estuarine pipefish is the only critically endangered species in the Syngnathidae family. It is estimated that only 100 to 250 remain globally. The species was originally classified as extinct in 1994 before being rediscovered in 1996. To this day, there is no species monitoring or recovery plan in place.

Published in Environmental DNA, the research team collected samples from 39 sites in the Eastern Cape of South Africa in 2019 and found that the Estuarine pipefish resides in two estuaries, Kariega and Bushmans, owing to the high eelgrass vegetation cover.

The lead researcher on the project, PhD student Georgia Nester, from Curtin’s School of Molecular and Life Sciences, noted that marine ecosystems are faced with unprecedented levels of disturbance; with rare species often being the most vulnerable. Thus, it is critical to identify the most effective way to monitor and manage their recovery.

To effectively manage rare or threatened species, understanding their environment, population size and the threats they face is crucial. This can be especially difficult for small species in aquatic environments – the largest Estuarine pipefish recorded was only 15 centimetres in length, she said.

By using eDNA technology, the Curtin University team identified locations where the Estuarine pipefish lives and learned more about their preferred habitats, challenges and threats. They were also able to eliminate locations where they were previously found, such as in the Kasouga, East or West Kleinemonde estuaries in South Africa, suggesting that this critically endangered species has been wiped out from these locations due to flooding in the area.

The study provides information that will revolutionise current conservation efforts for this species. If map vegetation is mapped in other estuaries in the region, potential locations to reintroduce this critically endangered species can be identified. The eDNA toolkit can then be used to monitor the success of these reintroductions, and hopefully, bring this species back from the brink of extinction.

The study provided important insights into the use of eDNA technology and how this non-destructive, non-invasive tool could be beneficial to effectively monitor other rare and critically endangered species.

The study employed two different techniques – eDNA and seine netting, which uses fishing nets to catch the species – to track the location and movements of the Estuarine pipefish and found that using eDNA was four times more effective compared to seine netting. This new information can now help guide a long-term monitoring program to support this critically endangered species and prevent it from becoming extinct.

The paper was co-authored by researchers from Curtin’s School of Molecular and Life Sciences, The Knysna Basin Project, The University of Western Australia, the Western Australian Museum, Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, Coasts and Ocean Research Program, and Nelson Mandela University and Rhodes University in South Africa.

As the world continues to reckon with the global climate crisis, the global environment, conservation and wildlife organisations market is expected to grow from US$21.78 billion in 2020 to US$22.18 billion in 2021 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 1.8%.

The growing technological advancement in the conservation of wildlife is shaping the environment, conservation, and wildlife organisations market. Many major organisations across the globe are focusing on creating innovative technology solutions for the environmental, conservation, and wildlife organisations market.

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