A team of biologists under the leadership of U.S. Forest Service fisheries biologist Dan Isaak is working to prepare the first ever aquatic species map for US West.
The map is being pegged as the Holy Grail for biologists by Isaak who says that such a map could help with land management decisions and deciding where to spend limited money and resources. The map will pave way for scientists to visualize how biodiversity and ecosystems change over time and with it being available digitally, a lot of science will be possible.
The plan is to have the map include everything from insects to salmon to river otters and the team says that it will be possible thanks to a new technology that can identify stream inhabitants by analyzing water samples containing DNA. The technology also can be used to identify invasive species.
According to Michael Schwartz, who is the Forest Service’s director of the National Genomics Center for Wildlife and Fish Conservation in Missoula, Montana, the technology being used is evolving. As of now only one species at a time can be detected in a stream sample; however, the ultimate goal being able to identify multiple species in a single test from one sample. A rough estimate for when that might be possible is about a year, he said.
The atlas, once available publicly, could be used by someone with an iPad or other device who could go to a section of river and see what species it contains.
The Aquatic Environmental DNA Atlas for the western U.S. has its genesis in a smaller-scale project called the Bull Trout Environmental DNA Atlas involving five states – Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington – where the federally protected fish is found. That effort, Isaak said, has discovered bull trout in areas where they were thought not to exist.
What scientists ultimately hope to do is combine all the information from stream temperatures, DNA Atlas sampling, topography and weather patterns to get more insights into species distribution patterns and even how entire ecosystems function.