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CREDIT London Wildlife Trust / Natural History Museum

Cutting edge DNA analysis to reveal the secret wildlife of urban nature reserves

Volunteers and staff from the Natural History Museum and London Wildlife Trust are working together as part of an exciting, experimental project which they hope will reveal the hidden wildlife of two urban nature reserves. 

Volunteers and staff from the Natural History Museum and London Wildlife Trust are working together as part of an exciting, experimental project which they hope will reveal the hidden wildlife of two urban nature reserves.

Using cutting-edge environmental DNA analysis, the Museum and the London Wildlife Trust aim to identify the tiny insects, other invertebrates and microorganisms that play an important, if unnoticed, role in healthy environments.

Dr John Tweddle, Head of the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity at the Natural History Museum said: “London is home to almost 15,000 kinds of plants, animals and fungi. To manage and conserve this vital diversity of life we need to understand which species we have and how their distributions and populations are changing. The application of new scientific techniques, such as the analysis of environmental DNA, has the potential to play a pivotal role in meeting this time-critical challenge.”

With the support of a grant from the National Geographic Society, the project is focusing on two well-known London nature sites, the Wildlife Garden at the Natural History Museum and London Wildlife Trust’s Camley Street Natural Park in King’s Cross.

Both locations feature wildlife habitats which have been grown from scratch in challenging, urban locations. This project will support the Natural History Museum and London Wildlife Trust to form a baseline understanding of all the wildlife at each location, allowing them to enact and adapt their conservation work accordingly.

Flying insects, ground-living invertebrates, aquatic and soil life will be sampled at each locality. The samples will then be analysed using an emerging form of DNA-sequencing called next generation – or high throughput - sequencing. This technique is revolutionising how scientists can study biological systems, by allowing them to sequence many millions of DNA fragments from a single environmental sample, such as a scoop of soil or vial of pond water. By comparing the extracted DNA against a reference library of DNA profiles, it is ultimately envisaged that a thorough understanding of the diverse communities of life inhabiting each site may be developed.

An additional element of the study looks to understand how volunteers and staff embrace this new investigative approach, with the aim of learning from their experiences and feedback.

Whilst currently at a highly experimental stage, environmental DNA analysis has the potential to revolutionise nature conservation science by complementing and reinforcing existing survey techniques, which often require significant time and increasingly hard-to-find expertise. 

Mathew Frith, Director of Conservation at London Wildlife Trust, said: “Understanding the wild world around us is essential if we are to protect and care for the environment in a changing, and challenging climate. In growing, crowded cities such as London, providing space for nature to flourish is essential to the health and wellbeing of the people who live here, as well as the environmental health of the city itself. We’re excited to be working with the Natural History Museum on this ground-breaking research project, which could spearhead a whole new approach to conservation and environmental protection.”

ENDS

Notes for editors

Please download images here and credit © London Wildlife Trust / Natural History Museum        

Contact: Ian Tokelove, Communications Manager, London Wildlife Trust; call 020 7803 4293 or email press@wildlondon.org.uk

The Natural History Museum exists to inspire a love of the natural world and unlock answers to the big issues facing humanity and the planet. It is a world-leading science research centre, and through its unique collection and unrivalled expertise it is tackling issues such as food security, eradicating diseases and managing resource scarcity. The Natural History Museum is the most visited natural history museum in Europe and the top science attraction in the UK; we welcome more than 4.5 million visitors each year and our website receives over 500,000 unique visitors a month. People come from around the world to enjoy our galleries and events and engage both in-person and online with our science and learning activities through innovative programmes such as citizen science and family festivals. www.nhm.ac.uk

London Wildlife Trust is the only charity dedicated solely to protecting the capital's wildlife and wild spaces, engaging London's diverse communities through access to our nature reserves, campaigning, volunteering and education. London Wildlife Trust is one of 46 Wildlife Trusts, dedicated to conserving the UK's wild habitats and species, managing around 2,300 nature reserves and supported by about 800,000 members and 43,000 volunteers. See www.wildlondon.org.uk