How air pollution sensors can find wildlife – BBC

Tracking biodiversity worldwide is incredibly challenging; national monitoring programmes differ widely, the majority of collected data is erratic and little is shared publicly.

But scientists may have found a surprising solution: the filters already used around the world to monitor air pollution.

These devices have for decades been unintentionally capturing large amounts of environmental DNA from animals and plants. Scientists say this could be used to help us understand past, as well as future, changes in biodiversity.

A new study by Canadian and UK scientists found that stations monitoring air quality inadvertently collected a large array of DNA from animals and plants in 2021 and 2022. It says the captured data could be “an absolute game changer for tracking and monitoring biodiversity” worldwide.

In a test case, the scientists recovered environmental DNA from more than 180 different plants, fungi, insects, mammals and amphibians from air quality filters located in Scotland and London from September to October 2021 and April and May of 2022. Air monitoring infrastructure “may represent a tremendous opportunity to collect high resolution biodiversity data on national scales,” the scientists conclude in the study.

“We were so surprised to successfully identify over 180 taxa from just two instruments,” says Joanne Littlefair, one of the study co-authors and lecturer in biological sciences at Queen Mary University of London. The animals included little owls, smooth newts and 80 different types of trees and plants. The researchers did not identify any unusual species or population movements in their initial sampling. They say this shows that the DNA collected is local and “not blowing in from a different continent”.  

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In the study, the scientists extracted airborne environmental DNA, shed in the form of skin cells, saliva, hair and faeces, from the filters and analysed specific primers, molecular tags, matching their results back to online reference libraries.

Elizabeth Clare, lead author of the study and assistant professor of molecular ecology at York University in Canada, says the findings are “really exciting” as they shows that existing infrastructure can be harnessed for biodiversity research.

“There’s already infrastructure in place and we can collect material that’s incredibly valuable as a byproduct of its operation,” says Clare.

It means that existing and established air quality networks could be a huge untapped source of biodiversity data, according to Andrew Brown, principal scientist at the National Physical Laboratory, which manages the networks for the UK Environment Agency.

Around the world air quality stations collect data on a daily or weekly basis in a highly regulated and standardised way, says Brown – meaning they are “collecting exactly the same thing in exactly the same way day after day”.

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