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Rare carnivore detections from environmental DNA in snow

Date: September 05, 2019

Innovative methods for detecting rare carnivores from snow could revolutionize winter surveys by reducing or eliminating misidentifications and missed detections


A photograph of a woman kneeling in snow next to small tree scooping snow into a plastic bottle.
Jessie Golding scooping snow-tracks on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest (photo credit: Thomas Franklin, USFS).
The management of rare species is a conservation priority worldwide, but this task is made difficult by detection errors in population surveys. Both false positive (misidentification) and false negative (missed detection) errors are prevalent in surveys for rare species and can lead to incorrect inferences about their population status or distribution. Environmental DNA (eDNA)—DNA shed from an organism in its environment—coupled with quantitative PCR (qPCR) analyses, has become a reliable and extremely sensitive means for identifying rare species in aquatic systems. Due to the demonstrated effectiveness of these methods, we tested their efficacy in surveys for rare species in terrestrial settings to reduce detection errors for three rare forest carnivores of conservation concern: Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis), fisher (Pekania pennanti), and wolverine (Gulo gulo).


We investigated our ability to reliably: 1) identify species directly from snow samples collected within tracks; 2) identify species by collecting snow samples in locations where an animal had been photographed months earlier; and 3) identify species from old hair samples collected during the summer after being deployed the prior fall (i.e., overwinter surveys). We found that our species-specific assays could effectively detect DNA of all three species, including from snow-track surveys, snow collected at camera stations, and overwinter samples that failed to amplify with conventional lab techniques. All results indicate that the sources of targeted eDNA collection provided adequate quantities of DNA for robust species detection. We suggest that using qPCR methods to detect DNA has the potential to revolutionize winter surveys for rare species in terrestrial settings by reducing or eliminating misidentifications and missed detections and allowing surveys in areas where winter access is not feasible such as wildernesses.

Key Findings

  • Detecting DNA from rare carnivores snow track samples and old hair samples was highly successful.
  • Detection was enabled by adapting environmental DNA methods used in aquatic surveys.
  • This cost-effective method can revolutionize winter rare carnivore surveys by providing highly specific and sensitive results.

Additional Resources


Featured Publications

Franklin, Thomas W. ; McKelvey, Kevin S. ; Golding, Jessie ; Mason, Daniel H. ; Dysthe, Joseph ; Pilgrim, Kristine L. ; Squires, John R. ; Aubry, Keith B. ; Long, Robert A. ; Greaves, Samuel ; Raley, Catherine M. ; Jackson, Scott ; MacKay, Paula ; Lisbon, Joshua ; Sauder, Joel D. ; Pruss, Michael T. ; Heffington, Don ; Schwartz, Michael K. , 2019

Forest Service Partners: 
Scott Jackson (National Carnivore Program Leader –R1),
Michael Pruss (Wildlife Program Manager, Nez Perce – Clearwater NF),
Keith Aubry (PNW Research Station),
Catherine Raley (PNW Research Station)
External Partners: 
Robert Long (Woodland Park Zoo),
Paula MacKay,
Joshua Lisbon (MPG Ranch),
Joel Sauder (ID Fish and Game),
Don Heffington (private citizen)
Research Location: 
Northern Rocky Mountains and Northern Cascade Mountains, USA