Surprise! A long-running program to monitor air pollution has unintentionally collected a significant database of information about Canada’s flora and fauna.
Since 1969, the National Air Pollution Surveillance program (NAPS), has been tracking the country’s air quality. Today, NAPS has nearly 260 air monitoring stations across the country — and new research suggests those monitoring stations have been collecting more than just air quality data.
Canadian and British researchers report that the stations have likely been inadvertently collecting data about Canadian wildlife in the form of environmental DNA, or eDNA, for more than five decades.
eDNA is small bits of genetic material left behind by plants and animals as they interact with their environment. It comes in a number of forms, from fur to feces to shed skin.
When they analysed the filters from two British stations, researchers identified eDNA from 182 species, encompassing plants, fungi, insects, mammals, birds, fish and amphibians. The study’s authors suggest that some air-monitoring stations could hold the eDNA of Canadian wildlife dating back to the 1970s.
eDNA information gleaned from the filters could be used to develop a holistic view of Canada’s biodiversity and help track declining wildlife stocks.