Researchers test some cutting-edge estuarine science that is out of this world on Great Bay!

Ever wondered what it would be like to use the tricorder from Star Trek? To scan an environment and learn what kinds of creatures live there? Reserve scientists and genetics researchers are working together to refine a technology that feels like science fiction, but provides real world capacity to detect rare or invasive animals and animals more affordably—and with less impact— than traditional methods.

Great Bay is one of several Reserves in the National Estuarine Research Reserve System that is partnering with the University of New Hampshire (UNH) researchers to study the use of environmental DNA (or eDNA) for estuary monitoring. eDNA comes from genetic material that animals shed through scales, shells, fur, feces, fragments of tissue, and more—basically the “gunk” that floats in the bay.

To extract the DNA, scientists take a simple water or sediment sample and send it to the lab for a low-cost analysis. Through a process called “metabarcoding,” they can identify dozens of species to get a more comprehensive picture of the ecosystem. The wealth of information that eDNA provides can inform resource management decisions without the need to capture live animals or plants.

eDNA samples being processed at the University of New Hampshire’s (UNH) Hubbard Center for Genomic Studies.

Tidal marshes are under significant pressure from sea level rise and development. There is an urgent need to evaluate marsh resilience to such pressures in order to inform relevant research, monitoring programs, restoration projects, and marsh management plans. However, there are few tools to support “apples to apples” comparisons of marsh conditions across large geographic areas.

“Our Reserve is excited to explore the possibilities of this novel technology for early detection of invasive crabs and seaweeds, as well as to understand how climate change can affect our biological communities,” says Chris Peter, research coordinator at Great Bay.

In 2018, researchers combined eDNA sampling and analysis with traditional seine net monitoring, where live fish are captured, checked, counted, and then released. For the upcoming season, they will continue to pair eDNA with seine fishing and use it to explore biodiversity, or the variety of life in an ecosystem. As one of several Reserves testing this technology—each with their own research questions, management concerns, and biological communities—Great Bay is helping to pilot eDNA for widespread use.

“The NERRS provides a network of sites where scientists collect information on estuaries using standardized methods that have been developed by the system partners,” says UNH researcher and project lead Alison Watts. “By collaborating with multiple Reserves, we are able to develop and test our methods at different types of sites, and gather input on how best to develop procedures that could be adopted at additional sites in the NERRS and beyond.”

Briana Fischella, the Great Bay Reserve’s research and monitoring technician, collects samples for the project. As a member of the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, the Great Bay Reserve participates in—and benefits from—national research project tackling problems experienced by coastal decision makers around the country.