Something in the water – using modern DNA techniques to catalogue diversity in wetlands

This year we are working in collaboration with Deakin University and Glenelg Hopkins CMA to trial a novel approach at obtaining biodiversity snapshots through the use of eDNA. Environmental DNA (eDNA) technologies are centered around characterising species presence through the detection of genetic material that organisms shed or excrete into their surrounding environment. This technology is revolutionising wildlife monitoring in aquatic ecosystems by providing unprecedented sensitivity for determining species presence and absence, with demonstrated applications in the fields of biosecurity, fisheries management, and conservation. Importantly, eDNA methods are proving particularly useful for the detection of cryptic species which can be difficult to detect using traditional monitoring methods.

The project forms part of Harry Coleman’s Honours project, through Deakin University’s Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life and Environmental Sciences. Harry has been sampling a suite of coastal and inland freshwater systems including wetlands in the Glenelg Estuary and Discovery Bay Ramsar Site along with wetlands around the Grampians. Through incorporating a range of wetlands encompassing varying levels of condition; from those that are relatively intact, ones that have been recently restored and some that are less intact (i.e. hydrologically compromised), the project aims to assess patterns of biodiversity loss and environmental value in degraded systems, and biodiversity recovery in restored wetland habitats. The study also includes sites which are currently being restored under the Grampians/Glenelg landscape wetland restoration program which has been funded by the Victorian Government’s Biodiversity Response Planning program and is helping to ensure that Victoria’s natural environment is healthy, valued and actively cared for.

Harry Coleman, Deakin University Honours Student, taking water samples for eDNA analysis

By including sites we have been surveying using traditional techniques, we have a pretty good understanding of what should be there, and also what we might expect but as yet have not recorded. So the prospect of a forensic examination and its potential to identify some of the more cryptic species is particularly exciting. On a personal note, it’s also nice to reconnect with the world of genetics which has, to put it mildly, changed exponentially since I stepped out into the world of wetland restoration some 12 years ago. It has also been fantastic to have Harry helping out with some of our aquatic surveys and having the opportunity to familarise him with some of these sites and their recent history. Preliminary results show that the technique has great potential and has already thrown up a couple of surprises, but we’ll have more to say about that when Harry has completed his study.

Dr Adam Miller and Harry Coleman collecting eDNA samples from a hydrologically compromised wetland near the Grampians
Lachlan Farrington