Genetic tagging offers better, less invasive way of tracking animals

Research by U of A ecologists suggests studying DNA signatures is a “one-stop shop” for wildlife conservation.


Genetic tagging—the identification and tracking of individual animals using DNA—is proving more useful than other, more invasive methods of tracking animals, according to new research out of the University of Alberta.

“This method provides a toolkit that can answer many of the pressing questions in ecology and conservation and provides a ‘one-stop-shop’ for getting the answers,” said Clayton Lamb, a PhD candidate in biological sciences at the U of A.

He explained that genetic tagging uses samples from shed hair, feathers, feces or saliva, and is less invasive than the more traditional methods of tracking animals through tags and collars.

In addition to not having to handle animals, genetic tagging is scalable and offers scientists the opportunity to cover more ground and examine overall population density or the composition of a single community. It also provides the ability to recognize individual animals with great precision, allowing scientists to research animals that are otherwise difficult to study.

“Other methods would generally need to be combined to acquire similar insight. Genetic tagging approaches are complementary to traditional approaches and add a powerful tool to the ecologists’ toolkit,” he said.

DNA sequencing technology has grown increasingly affordable since the 2000s.

“As human pressures on the globe increase, scientists are tasked with identifying drivers of decline and mobilizing this evidence to promote mitigation,” said Lamb.

“Genetic tagging offers a powerful approach to parameterize such relationships across massive spatial extents, for difficult to sample species, and in a cost-effective and socially acceptable manner.”

The paper, “Genetic Tagging in the Anthropocene: Scaling Ecology From Alleles to Ecosystems,” was published in Ecological Applications.