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Ecological Forensics Service

Increasingly, technologies that utilise environmental and ancient DNA are being exploited by industry for conservation and mitigation purposes. A spin off activity of our ancient DNA research is to provide an ecological forensics service to ecological surveyors to identify species of bat, mustelid, rodent, canid and felid from evidence such as guano, scat or fur found in the field. The unequivocal identification of the presence of species during surveys provides evidence used in mitigation for building works as well as allowing ecologists to establish identify habitats suitable for conservation.


Background

At Warwick we have an active ancient DNA research facility and program which uses the latest technologies to make ground breaking advances in interpreting our past from the miniscule fragments of degraded DNA left in the environment (e.g. Smith et al. 2015 Science 347:998-1001). Such evidence is used to inform on both archaeology and conservation.

The same technology can be practically applied for routine ecological surveying purposes. Through interaction with ecological surveying firms we initially identified a need in the community to be able to identify bat species from guano evidence to supplement sonic evidence of species, but also to enable the community to work usefully out of season and where roost sites are sporadically occupied. In 2009 we began a small operation to provide such a service, which would not have been possible as a start up business venture.

Impact

Since 2009 the ecological forensics operation has grown exponentially year on year to become the principal supplier of bat genotyping in the UK to several hundred companies, and now runs as a sustainable venture with a dedicated full time member of staff. Increasingly, it has become routine to supply DNA evidence in survey reports as a result.

The venture has spread into other animal groups, capable of identifying mustelids, rodents, canids and felids. Notable work for the National Trust has included the identification of whale species washed up on the beaches of the UK, and national headline news was made in 2011 in the investigation of the possible presence of large cats such as panthers in the UK.

Future

Remarkably, to date all the growth of the ecological forensics has been by word of mouth through the ecological community, with new clients constantly appearing every week. In the future we will more proactively take the service to the community it serves and raise awareness further.

We will also develop research avenues of interest to the community with a view to publishing in the open access arena thereby drawing non-scientists closer to the world of science for better mutual understanding.