Unlocking Genetic Insights for Polar Bear Conservation

 In a groundbreaking study recently published in Frontiers in Conservation Science, WWF and MIX Research have developed an innovative method for collecting and analyzing environmental DNA (eDNA) from the snow tracks of polar bears, Eurasian lynx, and snow leopards. This pioneering approach enriches the conservation toolkit with a new tool to protect these enigmatic species and their remote habitats.

The focus of this collaborative effort has been on extracting environmental DNA (eDNA) from polar bear footprints, offering an unobtrusive, non-invasive approach to studying wildlife populations. By analyzing trace amounts of eDNA from polar bear tracks in the snow in Alaska, the team achieved a groundbreaking feat. In MIX Research’s lab in Sweden, they successfully isolated and sequenced eDNA from the cells’ nuclei, allowing them to genetically profile each individual bear.

What sets this innovative technique apart from earlier eDNA methodologies using animals’ footprints, is its ability to retrieve nuclear DNA from the tracks. This unlocks more extensive insights into species, including individual identification, understanding population interconnections, and unraveling migration patterns and behaviors.

Unlike conventional research methods that require closer interaction with the bears, eDNA collection allows for vital data to be gathered without disturbing the animals, opening doors for local communities, volunteers, and non-scientists to participate in monitoring efforts and management of polar bears and other species that leave tracks in the snow.

Dr Micaela Hellström, lead researcher at MIX Research, describes the work as being a “DNA detective” – using careful techniques to extract valuable insights from the footprints, much like forensic scientists unravel mysteries in criminal investigations

“From a ski trip in the Swedish forests, where I collected snow from otter tracks, an unexpected polar bear project emerged, featuring a collaborative dream-team. With expertise from WWF on polar bear conservation and insights from Indigenous communities on the bear-human perspective, I was able to contribute by developing cutting edge genetic tools”, says Dr Micaela Hellström.

“Polar bears are notoriously difficult to study, but our research aims to create opportunities for collecting more data ” says Elisabeth Kruger, Manager, Arctic Wildlife at WWF-US in Alaska.

This method marks a significant step forward in wildlife conservation, equipping researchers with a new tool to augment existing ones for gathering information about polar bear populations. These iconic animals face imminent threats due to the climate crisis, which is melting their sea ice habitat. Understanding their movements, genetic interactions, and behaviors is of utmost importance for their conservation and management. Success in using the method for snow leopard and lynx snow tracks offers much promise that it can contribute to the conservation and management of other snow-living animals.

Dr Melanie Lancaster, Senior specialist, Arctic species, WWF Global Arctic Programme:

“We’re delighted with the results of this collaboration and pleased to add a new tool to the conservation toolbox for polar bears and other snow-living species. There is still much we do not know about polar bears across the Arctic, which is worrying, given current and predicted impacts of the climate crisis on their habitats and populations. We need all the help we can get to collectively ensure their conservation”.

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