Extensive practical guide to DNA-based biodiversity assessment methods published as a ‘living’ document by DNAqua-Net COST Action

Between 2016 and 2021, over 500 researchers collaborated within the DNAqua-Net international network, funded by the European Union’s European Cooperation in Science and Technology programme (COST), with the goal to develop and advance biodiversity assessment methods based on analysis of DNA obtained from the environment (e.g. river water) or from unsorted collections of organisms. 

Such innovative methods are a real game changer when it comes to large-scale assessment of biodiversity and ecological monitoring, as collecting environmental samples that are sent to the lab for analysis is much cheaper, faster and non-invasive, compared with capturing and examining live organisms. However, large-scale adoption has been hindered by a lack of standardisation and official guidance. 

Recognising the urgent need to scale up ecological monitoring as we respond to the biodiversity and climate crises, the DNAqua-Net team published a guidance document for the implementation of DNA-based biomonitoring tools.

The guide considers four different types of samples: water, sediments, invertebrate collections and diatoms, and two primary analysis types: single species detection via qPCR and similar targeted methods; and assessment of biological communities via DNA metabarcoding. At each stage of the field and laboratory process the guide sets out the scientific consensus, as well as the choices that need to be made and the trade-offs they entail. In particular, the guide considers how the choices may be influenced by common practical constraints such as logistics, time and budget. Available in an Advanced Book format, the guidelines will be updated as the technology continues to evolve.

Leaders of DNAqua-Net are Prof. Dr. Florian Leese of the University of Duisburg-Essen (Germany) and Dr. Agnès Bouchez of the French National Institute for Agriculture, Food, and Environment (INRAE). The core writing team for the present guide book involves Dr. Micaela Hellström (MIX Research AB, Sweden), Dr. Kat Bruce (NatureMetrics Ltd., UK), Dr. Rosetta Blackman (University of Zurich and EAWAG, Switzerland), Dr. Sarah Bourlat (LIB/Museum Koenig, Germany), and Prof. Kristy Deiner (ETH Zurich and SimplexDNA AG, Switzerland).

“Back in 2016 we realised that all around the globe researchers are testing new eDNA methods, developing individual solutions and products. While this is excellent, we need to reach a consensus and provide this consensus to stakeholders from the applied sectors”, 

says Florian Leese.
This video was created as part of EU COST Action DNAqua-Net (CA15219) and shows how environmental DNA (eDNA) can be sampled and analysed from aquatic ecosystems. It shows the whole cycle from the start to final results. 
Credit: DNAqua-Net

The guide’s lead author Dr. Kat Bruce adds:

“The urgency of addressing the twin biodiversity and climate crises means that we need to accelerate the adoption of new technologies that can provide data and insights at large scales. In doing so, we walk a tricky line to agree on sufficiently standardised methods that can be usefully applied as soon as they add value, while still continuing to develop them further and innovate within the field. It was a daunting task to seek consensus from several hundred scientists working in a fast-moving field, but we found that our technology is based on a strong foundation of knowledge and there was a high level of agreement on the core principles – even if the details vary and different users make different choices depending on their environmental, financial or logistical constraints.”

Looking back on the last four years that culminated in the publication of a “living” research publication, Prof. Dr. Kristy Deiner says:

“The document took many twists and turns through more than ten versions and passionate discussions across many workshops and late night drinks. All in the days when we could linger at conferences without fear of the pandemic weighing on us. As we worked to find consensus, one thing was clear: we had a lot to say and a standard review paper was not going to cut it. With the knowledge and experience gathered across the DNAqua-Net, it made sense to not limit this flow of information, but rather to try and tackle it head on and use it to address the many questions we’ve all struggled with while developing DNA-based biodiversity survey methods.”

Now that the document – or at least its first version – is publicly available, the researchers are already planning for the next steps and challenges.

“The bottom line is we’ve come a long way in the last ten years. We have a buffet of methods for which many produce accurate, reliable and actionable data to the aid of biodiversity monitoring and conservation. While there is still much work to be done, the many unanswered questions are because the uptake is so broad. With this broad uptake comes novel challenges, but also new insights and a diversity of minds with new ideas to address them. As said this is planned to be a living document and we welcome continued inputs no matter how great or small,” says Deiner.

Dr. Micaela Hellström recalls:

“The book evolved over the four years of COST Action DNAqua-Net which made it possible for the many scientists and stakeholders involved to collaborate and exchange knowledge on an unprecedented scale. Our whole team is well aware of the urgent need to monitor biodiversity loss and to provide accurate species distribution information on large scales, to protect the species that are left. This was a strong driving force for all of us involved in the production of this document. We need consensus on how to coherently collect biodiversity data to fully understand changes in nature.”

“It was a great and intense experience to be a part of the five-person core writing team. In the months prior to submitting the document, we spent countless hours, weekends and late nights researching the field, communicating with researchers and stakeholders, and joining vivid Zoom discussions. As a result, the present book provides solid guidance on multiple eDNA monitoring methods that are – or will soon become – available as the field moves forward.” 

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The DNAqua-Net team invites fellow researchers and practitioners to provide their feedback and personal contributions using the contacts below.

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Original source:

Bruce K, Blackman R, Bourlat SJ, Hellström AM, Bakker J, Bista I, Bohmann K, Bouchez A, Brys R, Clark K, Elbrecht V, Fazi S, Fonseca V, Hänfling B, Leese F, Mächler E, Mahon AR, Meissner K, Panksep K, Pawlowski J, Schmidt Yáñez P, Seymour M, Thalinger B, Valentini A, Woodcock P, Traugott M, Vasselon V, Deiner K (2021) A practical guide to DNA-based methods for biodiversity assessment. Advanced Books. https://doi.org/10.3897/ab.e68634

Tiny cave snail with muffin-top waistline rolls out of the dark in Laos

A new species of tiny cave snail that glistens in the light and has a muffin-top-like bulge, was discovered by Marina Ferrand of the French Club Etude et Exploration des Gouffres et Carrières (EEGC), during the Phouhin Namno caving expedition in Tham Houey Yè cave in Laos in March 2019. The new species, named Laoennea renouardi was described in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal Subterranean Biology.

Tham Houey Yè cave (Vientiane Province, Laos), inhabited by the newly discovered “muffin-topped” snail species Laoennea renouardi.
Photo by Jean-Francois Fabriol.

A new species of tiny cave snail that glistens in the light and has a muffin-top-like bulge, was discovered by Marina Ferrand of the French Club Etude et Exploration des Gouffres et Carrières (EEGC), during the Phouhin Namno caving expedition in Tham Houey Yè cave in Laos in March 2019. The new species, Laoennea renouardi, is 1.80 mm tall and is named after the French caver, Louis Renouard, who explored and mapped the only two caves in Laos known to harbor this group of tiny snails. Only two species of Laoennea snail are known so far, L. carychioides and now, L. renouardi

Caver and scientist, Dr. Adrienne Jochum, affiliated with the Natural History Museum Bern and University of Bern (Switzerland), as well as the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum (Frankfurt, Germany) described the new species and its cave habitat together with co-authors: Estée Bochud, Natural History Museum Bern; Quentin Wackenheim, Laboratoire de Géographie Physique (Meudon, France) and Laboratoire Trajectoires (Nanterre, France); Marina Ferrand, EEGC; and Dr. Adrien Favre, Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum, in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal Subterranean Biology.

The new transparent “muffin-topped” snail, Laoennea renouardi.
Photo by Estée Bochud.

“The discovery and description of biodiversity before it disappears is a major priority for biologists worldwide. The caves in Laos are still largely underexplored and the snails known from them remain few in number,”

points out Dr. Jochum. 

The fact that two species of tiny cave snails of the same group were found in two caves located in two independent karstic networks 3.4 km apart, caused the authors to question evolutionary processes in these underground hotspots of biodiversity. The authors hypothesise that the two caves might have been connected during the Quaternary, around 100–200 thousand years ago. In time, the river Yè might have formed a barrier, thus disconnecting the cave systems and separating the populations. As a result, the snails evolved into two different species.

A new species of tiny cave snail that glistens in the light and has a muffin-top-like bulge, was discovered by Marina Ferrand of the French Club Etude et Exploration des Gouffres et Carrie?res (EEGC), during the Phouhin Namno caving expedition in Tham Houey Yè cave in Laos in March 2019. The new species, Laoennea renouardi, is 1.80 mm tall and is named after the French caver, Louis Renouard, who explored and mapped the only two caves in Laos known to harbor this group of tiny snails. Only two species of Laoennea snail are known so far, L. carychioides and now, L. renouardi.

Caver and scientist, Dr. Adrienne Jochum, affiliated with the Natural History Museum BernUniversity of Bern (Switzerland), as well as the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum (Frankfurt, Germany) described the new species and its cave habitat together with co-authors: Estée Bochud, Natural History Museum Bern; Quentin Wackenheim, Laboratoire de Géographie Physique (Meudon, France) and Laboratoire Trajectoires (Nanterre, France); Marina Ferrand, EEGC; and Dr. Adrien Favre, Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum, in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal Subterranean Biology.

Map of the two caves on opposite sides of the River Yè, Vientiane Province, Laos.
Image by Louis Renouard.

The fact that two species of tiny cave snails of the same group were found in two caves located in two independent karstic networks 3.4 km apart, caused the authors to question evolutionary processes in these underground hotspots of biodiversity. The authors hypothesise that the two caves might have been connected during the Quaternary, around 100-200 thousand years ago. In time, the river Yè might have formed a barrier, thus disconnecting the cave systems and separating the populations. As a result, the snails evolved into two different species.

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Original Source:

Jochum A, Bochud E, Favre A, Ferrand M, Wackenheim Q (2020) A new species of Laoennea microsnail (Stylommatophora, Diapheridae) from a cave in Laos. Subterranean Biology 36: 1-9.
https://doi.org/10.3897/subtbiol.36.58977

Large-sized fossilised lacewings prove remarkable species diversity during Middle Jurassic

Middle Jurassic has always been considered as a mysterious ancient period full of ‘magical’ dinosaurs, pterosaurs and plants. However, when we think about the Jurassic landscape, we should take insects into consideration as well.

The lacewings, for example, are a graceful group famous for the lovely net-like veins on their wings, beautiful enough to stand the test of time, preserved as fossils. In addition, the wing spots on their wings form various patterns, which serve to tell us more about their adaptation to the particular environment.

Having carefully studied several pieces of compressed fossils of the large and distinct insects they found in Dohugou village, Inner Mongolia, Chinese scientists Hui Fang, Dong Ren, Jiaxi Liu and Yongjie Wang, College of Life Science, Capital Normal University, Beijing, discovered two species new to science.

Due to their complex, one-of-a-kind wing venations, all three of them were placed in the same genus (Laccosmylus) in the family Saucrosmylidae. Their descriptions, along with the redescription of another previously known species, are published in the open access journal ZooKeys.

“Fossil lacewing insects are much more abundant compared to living ones,” comment the authors.

“These large-sized fossil lacewing species reflect a high lacewing diversity in Middle Jurassic. Soon, they will help us reconstruct the wonderful environment of the Jurassic world.”

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Original source:

Fang H, Ren D, Liu J, Wang Y (2018) Revision of the lacewing genus Laccosmylus with two new species from the Middle Jurassic of China (Insecta, Neuroptera, Saucrosmylidae). ZooKeys 790: 115-126. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.790.28286

Scorpionfish too deep for SCUBA divers caught by submersible turns out to be a new species

Smithsonian Institution’s DROP project describes a tenth new fish species near the Caribbean island of Curaçao

Discovered by scientists using the manned submersible Curasub in the deep-reef waters of the Caribbean island of Curaçao, a new scorpionfish species is the latest one captured with the help of the sub’s two robotic arms.

Found by Dr. Carole C. Baldwin, lead scientist of the Smithsonian’s Deep Reef Observation Project (DROP) and based at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, Ms. Diane Pitassy, also affiliated with the Smithsonian in Washington, and Dr. Ross Robertson, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panama, the new species is described in the open access journal ZooKeys. In their paper, the authors also discuss the depth distributions and relationships of western Atlantic members of its genus.

The new scorpionfish is distinguished from other similar scorpionfishes by a number of physical traits, including its distinctive bright orange-red colors, more elongated fin rays, and DNA. Inhabiting depths between 95 m and 160 m, it is also the deepest-living member of its genus in the western Atlantic Ocean.

The new scorpionfish is officially called Scorpaenodes barrybrowni in honor of Substation Curaçao and freelance photographer Barry Brown, who “has patiently, diligently, and expertly taken photographs of hundreds of fishes and invertebrates captured alive by DROP Investigators,” explain the authors. “He has generously shared his photographs, and they have enhanced numerous scientific and educational publications. It is an honor to recognize Barry Brown’s contributions to science through his photography.”

8590_Image2
Another scorpionfish species belonging to the same genus.

“Fish specimens that are brought up from deep reefs only occasionally surface alive,” explains Baldwin. When DROP scientists return to the surface in the Curasub with a living fish, Barry races it to his aquarium and begins to work his photographic magic.”

The new fish already has a common name as well. For the public, it will be known as the Stellate Scorpionfish, deriving from its star-shaped yellowish spots and the radiating pigment markings accentuating its eyes.

The manned submersible Curasub reaches depths up to 300 m and is used by DROP and other marine scientists to search for tropical marine fishes and invertebrates, while conventional SCUBA divers are unable to reach deeper than 30 – 50 metres below the water surface.

“The 50-300 m tropical ocean zone is poorly studied – too deep for conventional SCUBA and too shallow to be of much interest to really deep-diving submersibles,” notes Baldwin. “The Curasub is providing scientists with the technology needed to remedy this gap in our knowledge of Caribbean reef biodiversity.”

The sub relies on two hydraulic arms, one equipped with a suction hose, and the other designed to immobilize the fish with an anaesthetizing chemical. Once anesthetized, the individuals are collected with the suction hose, which empties into a vented plexiglass cylinder attached to the outside of the sub.

In January, the team of Drs. Luke Tornabene, Robertson and Baldwin discovered the Godzilla goby. About a year ago, Baldwin and Robertson stumbled upon another new goby species, which amazed the scientists with its love for the depths so much that they named it after the Curasub. In 2013, the authors recognized the DROP research program in the name of a beautiful new species of small blenny fish, Haptoclinus dropi.

“Stay tuned for more new discoveries,” suggests Baldwin. “We have only scratched the surface of our understanding of the biodiversity of tropical deep reefs.”

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Original source:

Baldwin CC, Pitassy DE, Robertson DR (2016) A new deep-reef scorpionfish (Teleostei, Scorpaenidae, Scorpaenodes) from the southern Caribbean with comments on depth distributions and relationships of western Atlantic members of the genus. ZooKeys 606: 141-158. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.606.8590

Greek heroic deity Prometheus now has a namesake in a new tiny rain frog from Ecuador

Prometheus, the mythological Greek heroic deity, has been given a namesake in a new species of tiny rain frog, discovered in southwestern Ecuador. The name was chosen by the international team of scientists, led by Dr Paul Szekely, Ovidius University, Constanta, Romania, in acknowledgement of the Prometeo program, funded by the Ecuadorian government.

The description of this new species (Pristimantis prometeii) is the result of the cooperation between three Romanian Prometeo investigators affiliated with the Universidad Tecnica Particular de Loja and Universidad Nacional de Loja, and two Ecuadorian specialists from Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Ecuador. The full study is available from the open access ZooKeys.

During the day, frogs of the new species were found hiding in flowering plants, while at night — perching on leaves at low heights in well preserved cloud forests. They grow to 2-3 cm with the females being larger than the males.9121_Adult female in life img 2

The newly described species is part of a group of frogs called Terrarana (meaning ‘Land or terrestrial frogs’). This is a lineage of frogs that has evolved directly developing eggs, which are deposited in terrestrial habitats. Unlike other frogs, these ones do not have an aquatic tadpole stage and the embryos develop directly into froglets on land.

The newly described species is only known from Reserva Biologica Buenaventura, southwestern Ecuador, at elevations between 878 and 1082 m. This reserve is privately owned by the Jocotoco Conservation Foundation. The reserve has at least another four endemic species of amphibians, reptiles, and birds.

With more than 470 species, the directly developing rain frogs of the genus Pristimantiscontinue to surprise everyone.

“While new species are described every year, there are over a hundred discovered over the last decade only,” remind the authors.

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extraOriginal source:

Szekely P, Cogalniceanu D, Szekely D, Paez N, Ron SR (2016) A new species of Pristimantis from southern Ecuador (Anura, Craugastoridae). ZooKeys 606: 77-97. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.606.9121

More assassins on the radar: As many as 24 new species of assassin bugs described

As many as 24 assassin bugs new to science were discovered and described by Dr. Guanyang Zhang and his colleagues. In their article, published in the open access Biodiversity Data Journal, they describe the new insects along with treating another 47 assassin bugs in the same genus. To do this, the scientists examined more than 10,000 specimens, coming from both museum collections and newly undertaken field trips.

Assassin bugs are insects that prey upon other small creatures, an intriguing behavior that gives the common name of their group. There are some 7000 described species of assassin bugs, but new species are still being discovered and described every year.

The new species described by scientists Drs Guanyang Zhang, University of California, Riverside, and Arizona State University, Elwood R. Hart, Iowa State University, and Christiane Weirauch, University of California, Riverside, belong to the assassin bug genus Zelus.

Linnaeus, the Swedish scientist, who established the universally used Linnean classification system, described the first species (Zelus longipes) of Zelus in 1767. Back then, he placed it in the genus Cimex, from where it was subsequently moved to Zelus. All of Zhang & Hart’s new species are from the Americas. Mexico, Panama, Peru, Colombia and Brazil are some of the top countries harboring new species.

To conduct the research, Zhang examined more than 10,000 specimens and nearly all of them have been databased. These specimen records are now freely and permanently available to everybody. Zhang’s work demonstrates the value of natural history collections. The specimens used in his work come from 26 museums in nine countries. The discovery of the new species would not have been possible without these museums actively collecting and maintaining their insect collections.

It took more than a century for some of the new species to be formally recognized and described. The first specimens of the species Zelus panamensis and Zelus xouthos, for example, had been collected in 1911 and 1915 from Panama and Guatemala. However, since then they had been waiting quietly in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, USA. Now, over 100 years later, they are finally discovered and given scientific names.

Meanwhile, more recently collected specimens also turned out to be new species. Specimens of Zelus lewisi and Zelus rosulentus were collected in 1995 and 1996 from Costa Rica and Ecuador, about two decades ago, a timeframe considered relatively short for taxonomic research. These interesting patterns of time lapse between specimen collecting and scientific description suggest that it is equally important to examine both long deposited in museums specimens and those newly collected from the field.

The kind of research performed by Zhang and his colleagues is called revisionary taxonomy. In revisionary taxonomy a researcher examines a large number of specimens of a group of organisms of his or her interest. This can be either a monophyletic lineage or organisms from a particular region. The scientist’s goal is to discover and describe new species, but also examine and revise previously published species.

Besides describing new species, the present taxonomic monograph treats another 47 previously described species. Nearly all species now have images of both males and females and illustrations of male genitalia. Some of these insects are strikingly brightly colored and some mimic wasps.

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Original source:

Zhang G, Hart E, Weirauch C (2016) A taxonomic monograph of the assassin bug genusZelusFabricius (Hemiptera: Reduviidae): 71 species based on 10,000 specimens. Biodiversity Data Journal 4: e8150.doi: 10.3897/BDJ.4.e8150

New species of spider discovered ‘next door’ at the borders of cereal fields in Spain

The image that comes to mind when we think of new species being discovered is that of scientists sampling in remote tropical forests, where humans have barely set foot in. However, new species waiting to be discovered can in fact be very close to us, even if we live in a strongly humanized continent like Europe.

Scientists Eduardo Morano, University of Castilla-La Mancha, and Dr Raul Bonal, University of Extremadura, have discovered a new species of spider, formally called Cheiracanthium ilicis, in an area which does not match the image of a pristine habitat at all.

The new species was found in a strongly humanized area in central Spain, specifically, in isolated trees at the borders of cereal fields. These trees, mainly Holm oaks (Quercus ilex), are those remaining of the former oak woodlands that once covered the Iberian Peninsula and which have been cleared for centuries.

The systematic sampling revealed the newly discovered spider had a an exclusive preference for Holm Oaks, as all individuals were collected from the trunks and branches of these trees. Therefore, it was named after this tree’s scientific name “ilicis”.PIC_1_isolated_oak

While adults measure about a centimetre in body length, juveniles are smaller and have greenish colouration that mimics new oak shoots.

The mouthparts are proportionally large, as in the case of other species of the genus, like closely related C. mildei. In the case of the latter, the mouthparts are large enough to penetrate human skin, although the effects of the poison appear mild.

From a conservation perspective, the present study puts forward the need to preserve isolated trees in agricultural landscapes. They are not only a refuge to common forest organisms but to novel species yet to be discovered as well.

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Original source:

Morano E, Bonal R (2016) Cheiracanthium ilicis sp. n. (Araneae, Eutichuridae), a novel spider species associated with Holm Oaks (Quercus ilex). ZooKeys 601: 21-39. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.601.8241

A hair’s breadth away: New tarantula species and genus honors Gabriel García Márquez

With its extraordinary defensive hairs, a Colombian tarantula proved itself as not only a new species, but also a new genus. It is hypothesised that the new spider is the first in its subfamily to use its stinging hairs in direct attack instead of ‘kicking’ them into the enemy.

Described in the open access journal ZooKeys by an international research team, led by Carlos Perafán, University of the Republic, Uruguay, the name of the new spider genus honours an indigenous people from the Caribbean coast region, whose language and culture are, unfortunately, at serious risk of extinction. Meanwhile, its species’ name pays tribute to renowned Colombian author and Nobel laureate for his novel ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ Gabriel García Márquez.male kankuamo

The new tarantula, formally called Kankuamo marquezi, was discovered in Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. When examined, the arachnid showed something extraordinary about its defensive hairs and its genitalia. The hairs were noted to form a small oval patch of lance-shaped barbs, hypothesised by the scientists to have evolved to defend their owners by direct contact.

On the other hand, when defending against their aggressors, the rest of the tarantulas in this subfamily need to first face the offender and then vigorously rub their hind legs against their stomachs. Aimed and shot at the enemy, a ball of stinging hairs can cause fatal injuries to small mammals when landed into their mucous membrane (the layer that covers the cavities and shrouds the internal organs in the body). Once thrown, the hairs leave a bald spot on the tarantula’s belly.

“This new finding is a great contribution to the knowledge of the arachnids in Colombia and a sign of how much remains to be discovered,” point out he authors.

Figure 8“The morphological characteristics present on Kankuamo marquezi open the discussion about the phylogenetics relationship between subfamilies of Theraphosidae tarantulas and the evolutionary pressures that gave rise to the urticating hairs.”

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Original source:

Perafán C, Galvis W, Gutiérrez M, Pérez-Miles F (2016) Kankuamo, a new theraphosid genus from Colombia (Araneae, Mygalomorphae), with a new type of urticating setae and divergent male genitalia. ZooKeys 601: 89-109. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.601.7704

Remarkably diverse flora in Utah, USA, trains scientists for future missions on Mars

Future Martian explorers might not need to leave the Earth to prepare themselves for life on the Red Planet. The Mars Society have built an analogue research site in Utah, USA, which simulates the conditions on our neighbouring planet.

Practicing the methods needed to collect biological samples while wearing spacesuits, a team of Canadian scientists have studied the diverse local flora. Along with the lessons that one day will serve the first to conquer Mars, the researchers present an annotated checklist of the fungi, algae, cyanobacteria, lichens, and vascular plants from the station in their publication in the open-access journal Biodiversity Data Journal.

oo_56706Located in the desert approximately 9 km outside of Hanksville, Utah, and about 10 km away from the Burpee Dinosaur Quarry, a recently described bone bed from the Jurassic Morrison Formation, the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) was constructed in 2002. Since then, it has been continuously visited by a wide range of researchers, including astrobiologists, soil scientists, journalists, engineers, and geologists.

Astrobiology, the study of the evolution and distribution of life throughout the universe, including the Earth, is a field increasingly represented at the MDRS. There, astrobiologists can take advantage of the extreme environment surrounding the station and seek life as if they were on Mars. To simulate the extraterrestrial conditions, the crew members even wear specially designed spacesuits so that they can practice standard field work activities with restricted vision and movement.

In their present research, the authors have identified and recorded 38 vascular plant species from 14 families, 13 lichen species from seven families, 6 algae taxa including both chlorophytes and cyanobacteria, and one fungal genus from the station and surrounding area. Living in such extreme environments, organisms such as fungi, lichens, algae, and cyanobacteria are of particular interest to astrobiologists as model systems in the search for life on Mars.

However, the authors note that there is still field work to be executed at the site, especially during the spring and the summer so that the complete local diversity of the area can be captured.Martian flora 2

“While our present checklist is not an exhaustive inventory of the MDRS site,” they explain, “it can serve as a first-line reference for identifying vascular plants and lichens at the MDRS, and serves as a starting point for future floristic and ecological work at the station.”

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Original source:

Sokoloff P, Hamilton P, Saarela J (2016) The “Martian” flora: new collections of vascular plants, lichens, fungi, algae, and cyanobacteria from the Mars Desert Research Station, Utah.Biodiversity Data Journal 4: e8176. doi: 10.3897/BDJ.4.e8176

More than just hippos and crocs: The hidden biodiversity of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park

iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the sub-tropical north-eastern corner of South Africa has become famous for its birdlife, crocodiles and hippopotamuses that frolic in the warm estuarine waters of Lake St Lucia. However, there’s more to the park than the “big and hairy”, according to aquatic ecologist Prof Renzo Perissinotto at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) in Port Elizabeth, whose research is published in the open access journal ZooKeys.

“Although we have spent several decades focusing on life in the estuary, we only recently came to realise that much of the wealth of biodiversity in the park exists in the small freshwater ponds that are adjacent to, but disconnected from, the main lake,” he says.Image 1

The St Lucia lake itself is generally brackish and is located on a large sandy expanse known as the Maputaland coastal plain. Dotted across the landscape of this coastal foreland are numerous temporary freshwater ponds, seeps and small streams that are disconnected from the brackish lake body.

A team of self-proclaimed “beetle nerds”, led by Prof Perissinotto, got together from NMMU and Plymouth University (UK) and uncovered more species of water beetles in these tiny water bodies than is known for any other similar-sized region in southern Africa.

The beetle collection trips were done over a 16-month period and revealed 68 species of predaceous water beetles alone, termed more formally as the “Hydradephaga”. The iSimangaliso Wetland Park houses approximately 20% of the total number of known species for this beetle group in the whole of southern Africa. Of the species collected during their expeditions, five have never been recorded in South Africa before, highlighting our poor understanding of aquatic insect distributions in this part of the world.

Most of the species collected (almost 80%) belonged to the family Dytiscidae, more commonly known as “diving beetles” due to their lifestyle that involves coming up for air and immediately diving back down to the depths to carry on hunting unsuspecting prey, which can be as large as small fish and amphibians.Image 2

Prof Perissinotto and his NMMU colleague Dr Matthew Bird, together with water beetle specialist Prof David Bilton (Plymouth University), collected specimens ranging from 1 mm to almost 5 cm in length (the tadpole eaters). According to Prof Bilton, “Irrespective of size, these water beetles are a crucial component of the iSimangaliso ecosystem in that they are the primary predators in these temporary wetlands, which generally lack fish. Their abundance and diversity can be used to gauge the overall health of wetland ecosystems as they are sensitive to pollution, for instance”.

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Original source:

Perissinotto R, Bird MS, Bilton DT (2016) Predaceous water beetles (Coleoptera, Hydradephaga) of the Lake St Lucia system, South Africa: biodiversity, community ecology and conservation implications. ZooKeys 595: 85-135. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.595.8614