Report by Dr. Sandeep Sharma, researcher in the Biodiversity Conservation Research Group at iDiv and Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, and lead author of a new publication in Ecology and Evolution
Southeast Asia is a melting pot of otters that are very difficult to monitor in the wild. We developed and tested a new, accurate and cost-effective DNA-based method to reliably identify three endemic Asian otter species in a paper published today in Ecology and Evolution. The protocol developed by our team of South Asian researchers from the Malaysian Nature Society, Sunway University, Department of Wildlife and National Parks (PERHILITAN), Peninsular Malaysia, Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg and German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) will help in monitoring and conserving threatened otter species in Asia. We also emphasize the importance and need for cost-effective and replicable techniques to advance biodiversity monitoring in highly biodiverse but underrepresented parts of the world.
Accurate and effective monitoring is essential to advance scientific knowledge and the state of biodiversity. Southeast Asia, a global biodiversity hotspot, is also facing several human-induced threats that are endangering the species. Four species of otters coexist in this part of the world, and not much is known about the distribution and population size of these species. They are threatened by habitat loss, the illegal wildlife trade, pollution and degradation of aquatic habitat, human-otter conflict, and climate change. The rapidly growing Asian economy and associated infrastructural development such as roads are becoming another cause of otter mortality.
Otters, sentinels of freshwater ecosystems, are difficult to distinguish and monitor in the wild due to their elusive nature and similarities in appearance between species. This requires an advanced technique that is not only accurate and replicable, but also affordable for the region’s wildlife researchers, who often work with little research funding. With this goal, we have developed a PCR-RFLP assay protocol suite that is also efficient in analyzing DNA from non-invasive samples such as feces (biases in the case of otters). We tested this protocol on known reference samples and further on spraint samples collected from otter habitat in Malaysia. Our technique has a very high amplification success (97%) for reliable and efficient species identification of three Asian otter species. We expect it to help monitor the state of otter populations in South and Southeast Asia.
(Researchers with iDiv affiliation are in bold)
Sandeep Sharma, Woo Chee-Yoong, Adrian Kannan, Suganiya Rama Rao, Pazil Abdul-Patah, Shyamala Ratnayeke (2022). Identification of three Asian otter species (Aonyx cinereus, Lutra sumatrana and Lutrogale perspicillata) using a new non-invasive PCR-RFLP assay. Ecology and Evolution, https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.9585