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Biodiversity monitoring is possible, just look at air quality

Researchers from leading universities have discovered devices tracking pollution in the atmosphere also collect environmental DNA. 

selective focus photography of bee

It is hoped the findings will finally provide a solution for how to measure biodiversity levels effectively, which most had previously believed was not possible.  

Scientists Dr Joanne Littlefair of Queen Mary University of London and Elizabeth Clare, Assistant Professor at York University, discovered that eDNA present in the air directly relates to the presence of individual species. This was then seen by Dr James Allerton and Dr Andrew Brown at the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, who realised the implications, and a collaborative effort began to analyse all data. 

‘We were routinely collecting particulate matter looking to measure pollutants in air but when we saw the work, we realised maybe we were sitting on something much more valuable,’ says Allerton, explaining an air quality station was set up in a London park, and samples collected over one hour, one day and one week. These were then compared with eight-month old readings from a public monitoring station in Scotland. 

‘The beauty of the idea is we are making use of something that already exists. If networks of air samplers around the world are all collecting similar material – just as a part of their regular functioning – it’s an incredible resource,’ added Brown, nodding to the fact almost every country on the planet has an air monitoring network, so global infrastructure is far-reaching. 

According to Clare, the sheer breadth of what could be surveyed in a single approach was ‘almost unheard of in this field of science’. 34 bird species, 24 mammals, a wide variety of insects, crops, pathogenic fungus, wildflowers, ornamental plants and grasses were detected in the two locations. 

‘We found species of interest, such as hedgehogs, along with badgers, deer, dormice, little owls, smooth newts, songbirds and 80 different kinds of woodland trees and plants – oak, linden, ash, pine – it was all there collected on these tiny filters. It’s unbelievably exciting,’ she said. 

More on biodiversity and air monitoring: 

International Day for Biological Diversity: Report recommends conservation basic income

Final speaker announced for inaugural SW & Wales Air Quality Conference

WATCH: Eden Project seagrass video shows why plant is so precious

River Thames Scheme: Sustainable land use, nature recovery, flood protection

Pollution from cars and fertiliser causes soil to release carbon

Images: Sandy Millar

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