Think about the last time you were near a stream and heard the steady ribbit of a frog or the croak of a toad.

Now imagine a world where there the ribbits and croaks are silenced – forever.
We are losing species at an alarming rate worldwide due to climate change – and amphibians are experiencing one of the fastest global declines. 

This biodiversity loss of amphibians is extremely problematic and deeply concerning.

Losing species makes ecosystems less and less resilient to disturbances.

In order to conserve amphibian species, we will need to monitor them closely.

Unfortunately, amphibians are a challenge to study for researchers for many reasons, including:

  1. Their small size;
  2. They live in hidden areas;
  3. They are cryptic, meaning they camouflage well in their natural environment; and
  4. Some require genetic techniques to identify to the species level.

Madison Wikston, a Trent University student in the Environmental Life Sciences program at Trent University is using a new methodology to help study amphibians to help protect them.

This new genetic technique, termed eDNA (environmental DNA) allows scientists to detect species with water samples. And the best part is: you don’t even need to see the animal to confirm that it’s there!

eDNA is possible because genetic material enters waterways through animal skin cells, fecal matter, and decomposing animals that can be detected in the lab.

Madison is using eDNA as a method for monitoring amphibian communities in Ontario.  She is like a “Crime Scene Investigator” for amphibians!

By comparing eDNA techniques to more traditional monitoring methods, including visual surveys, dipnet surveys, and call surveys, she is testing how effective eDNA can be at monitoring the over 20 amphibian species in Ontario.

Madison monitored 30 ponds and wetlands in the Peterborough area using both eDNA and traditional monitoring techniques.  She will compare and contrast which was most effective – and why.

So far, Madison has found that eDNA has great potential to be an effective amphibian community monitoring tool. The tool has helped identify many hard-to-find species.

Although effective, eDNA methods did have some downsides, including being more effective at identifying some species than others. Madison has found that eDNA methods do not have a 100% detection rate – but because the technology is rapidly evolving, they have the potential to become more and more accurate over time.

Until then, Madison’s work suggests that for the best picture of what species are present in a habitat, eDNA should be used in combination with another survey method, such as visual or call surveys.

eDNA is likely the most effective tool for amphibian detection at the community level. It can be used to detect not just one target species, but all species present in a specific habitat.

Her work has shown eDNA has the potential to revolutionize the way we monitor amphibians and other aquatic and semi-aquatic life, including turtles, fungi, plants, fish, and even viruses. 

eDNA can make detecting rare species more likely, especially when the species is cryptic and/or difficult to identify to begin with. This will help us identify and conserve valuable habitat.

Implementing eDNA monitoring techniques will help paint a more accurate picture of what is happening with amphibian populations in Ontario (and worldwide).

This information is vital if we want to counteract the effects of climate change and preserve these important species – to keep the frogs ribbitting and toads croaking.

Thank you Madison for your hard work!

Here is what she has to say about her Trent University Experience:

Trent University has a great community of passionate, conservation-driven scientists. I have learned a great deal from my peers and mentors, and am grateful to be surrounded by so many like-minded individuals.