Context. Environmental DNA, or eDNA, methods are a novel application of non-invasive genetic sampling in which DNA from organisms is detected via sampling of water or soil, typically for the purposes of determining the presence or absence of an organism. eDNA methods have the potential to revolutionise the study of rare or endangered taxa.
Aims. We evaluated the efficacy of eDNA sampling to detect populations of an amphibian of conservation concern, the eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus a. alleganiensis), indirectly from their aquatic environments.
Methods. We developed species-specific primers, validated their specificity and sensitivity, and assessed the utility of our methods in silico and in laboratory trials. In the field, we collected water samples from three sites with known densities of hellbenders, and from one site where hellbenders do not occur. We filtered water samples, extracted DNA from filters, and assayed the extraction products for hellbender DNA by using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and gel electrophoresis.
Key results. Our methods detected hellbenders at densities approaching the lowest of reported natural densities. The low-density site (0.16 hellbenders per 100 m2) yielded two positive amplifications, the medium-density site (0.38 hellbenders per 100 m2) yielded eight positive amplifications, and the high-density site (0.88 hellbenders per 100 m2) yielded 10 positive amplifications. The apparent relationship between density and detection was obfuscated when river discharge was considered. There was no amplification in any negative control.
Conclusion. eDNA methods may represent a cost-effective means by which to establish broad-scale patterns of occupancy for hellbenders.
Implications. eDNA can be considered a valuable tool for detecting many species that are otherwise difficult to study.