Environmental DNA

by Shannon Kieran

The GVL works on several environmental DNA projects. Environmental DNA is an emerging field in biology and ecology. Generally, eDNA is any genetic material found in the environment, rather than harvested from tissue, including poop on the trail, tufts of fur caught on a bush, the water a fish swam through, or the twigs a bird nested in. It’s used in ecology to monitor the presence and absence of species of concern.

Recently, GVL members have teamed up with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to develop eDNA protocols to monitor a number of vernal pool organisms. Vernal pools are temporary, seasonal ponds and contain specially-adapted plants and animals, many of which can live in no other environment. The GVL protocol involves filtering water from these pools and extracting DNA from that water to determine if vulnerable vernal pool species are present in that body of water.

Among the species GVL is monitoring is the Vernal Pool Tadpole Shrimp, Lepidurus packardi:

The vernal pool tadpole shrimp is an endangered branchiopod in the order notostraca. Despite living in a variable, rapidly-changing environment, is has remained noticeably unchanged by evolution for the last 250 million years (which is about 200 million years older than Tyrannosaurus rex).

GVL is also monitoring three species of fairy shrimp which are endemic to California vernal pools (meaning they live nowhere else in the world): The Midvalley Fairy Shrimp, the Conservatory Fairy Shrimp and the Vernal Pool Fairy Shrimp, Branchinecta mesovallensis, conservatio and lynchi respectively:

These endangered fairy shrimp are, like all fairy shrimp, in the order anostraca. They are important food sources for migratory birds

Finally, GVL is monitoring the presence of the California Tiger Salamander, Ambystoma californiensis, which is facing habitat fragmentation and is threatened by climate change:


These are California Tiger Salamander larvae at various stagse of development, all found in the same pool near Merced, CA.

To validate our protocol, California Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists come with us and we dipnet each pool, which is the current standard protocol for monitoring. Here is the team hard at work:


Dipnetting is a process of moving a large, fine mesh net through a pool in order to visually count and identify the creatures found in it. Along with fairy shrimp and salamanders, we often find the water flea daphnia, the tiny, bright red copepods in the vernal pools.