University of Copenhagen researchers developed a new technique that detects the presence of nearby animals by collecting DNA samples in the air. (Image Credit: Nick Karvounis/Unsplash)


Evaluating an animals’ home to determine conservation needs often requires trail cameras, which aren’t reliable for capturing data on the animals’ habitat. There is a crucial need for non-invasive observational tools now that species are rapidly declining around the world. Researchers from the University of Copenhagen and the Queen Mary University of London developed a technique that detects the presence of nearby animals by collecting their DNA from the air.  The work could eventually lead to terrestrial animal detection via environmental DNA.


Elizabeth Clare, a molecular ecologist at York University, published a paper that details how naked mole rats’ eDNA can be detected through air samples in a laboratory. The team behind this concept collected air samples from 15 indoor and outdoor areas at the Hamerton Zoo Park in Huntingdonshire, UK. They ended up analyzing each sample for 30 minutes with a pump and filter to determine if their tech could have real-world applications.


In total, the team sequenced 72 samples through the polymerase chain reaction technique, which amplifies DNA segments collected on air filters. The researchers identified 17 animal species, including deer and hedgehogs, which wandered around or lived in the zoo. They also identified 25 bird and mammal species. Some of these samples were sourced from the animals’ food, such as chicken, cow, or pig.   


The Copenhagen University researchers performed the same experiment at the Copenhagen Zoo.  They used a vacuum to obtain air samples from three locations during a thirty-minute to thirty-hour time period. After sampling each eDNA from the filters, the team detected the presence of animals that were 300 meters away from the vacuum pump. The high-sensitive DNA filtering technique also allowed researchers to detect the DNA of guppies swimming in tanks. Overall, it detected 49 vertebra species. 


Methods like this one were used in the past to detect species in aquariums. It identified eDNA from the great crested newt, a rare species, and olm, an aquatic salamander.


This approach could have animal detection applications in areas where it’s hard to reach or see, including caves, burrows, or dry environments. Improvements still need to be implemented before using it in the real world. The team needs to study how far eDNA travels in the air, how eDNA can be contaminated, an animals’ eDNA shedding process.  Even then, scientists plan to use it for wildlife monitoring purposes.


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