eCells: Developing novel ways to estimate animal abundance

A red and white commercial fishing boat with trawl nets extended behind the vessel.

A sample of ocean water contains DNA of species found in the area. Credit: CSIRO Science Image Online

Animal abundance is a fundamental aspect of population biology, relevant to a number of fields. However, it is often difficult to accurately estimate using traditional methods of direct observation or tagging. Genetic tools can be used to estimate population size and these have recently proven very effective when tissue samples can be taken from many individuals. However, it is not always possible to collect these samples. Many animal species are elusive and hard to collect from and for those that are endangered, the possible impact of taking samples from them is not a risk worth taking. What if there was a way to sample an animal’s genotype without taking tissue samples from them?

A new approach for determining the animal abundance of a particular location is to sample their cells that have been shed into the surrounding environment. For example, aquatic samples contain the cells of many animals that live in the water body. This project will work with and develop a combination of fluorescent DNA tags and PCR-based methodologies that can be used to separate cells of species of interest from environmental cells, and use these to generate genotypes of the animals present in an area.

Project lead: Dr Haylea Miller (Environomics FSP Postdoctoral Fellow)