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  • Non-Invasive DNA Analysis: A New Tool for Monitoring Polar Bears

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    Polar bear spotted in Utqiaġvik, Alaska. Image by Elisabeth Kruger, World Wildlife Fund.


    A Novel Approach to Wildlife Conservation
    Scientists have developed an innovative method to monitor elusive Arctic animals like polar bears by analyzing DNA from snow tracks. This technique, leveraging forensic methodologies for analyzing minute, degraded DNA samples, offers a promising and non-invasive way to gather crucial data about these vulnerable species.

    “It is particularly challenging, expensive, and time-consuming to find polar bears in the Arctic, let alone count them and understand how they are coping with climate change,” explained Melanie Lancaster from the World Wide Fund for Nature Global Arctic Programme and senior author of the study. This new approach circumvents the need to physically capture the animals, which can be stressful for both the bears and humans involved, and addresses concerns raised by local Indigenous communities about invasive research methods.

    Harnessing Environmental DNA
    The focus of this research is on environmental DNA (eDNA)—genetic material shed by animals in their environment. Unlike traditional methods that often rely on DNA from feces, which can be of lower quality and affect animal behavior, this technique utilizes skin cells found in snowy footprints. “The tracks usually contain fresh cells, and the DNA is intact because of the cold ‘storage’ temperature. DNA that has passed the gut is much more degraded and therefore more challenging to work on,” stated Micaela Hellström from MIX Research Sweden AB and the study’s lead author.

    Field Research and Findings
    In their work, the team collected snow from tracks of Alaskan polar bears and Swedish Eurasian lynxes in both wild and captive environments, along with a captive snow leopard. They also sampled other materials like hair, saliva, and mucus to confirm the accuracy of the genotypes obtained from the tracks.

    Their results were encouraging: 87.5% of wild polar bear tracks and 59.1% of wild lynx tracks yielded retrievable nuclear DNA. The success rate for genotyping was higher for samples collected by trained personnel, highlighting the importance of skill in this method.

    Implications and Future Applications
    This paws-off approach holds immense potential for wildlife conservation. It allows for a better understanding of animal populations and behaviors and can aid in managing human-wildlife conflicts through precise animal identification. While the success rate of non-invasive sampling is lower than traditional methods, its ease of collection means it can significantly expand sample sizes.

    Dr. Lancaster expresses hope that this method will gain traction within the polar bear research community and extend to other species in snowy habitats. The involvement of hunters, volunteers, and Indigenous communities is seen as key to the method's success and applicability to broader conservation efforts.

    Read the original article published in Frontiers in Conservation Science.

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