Aquatic invasive species detection goes CSI with eDNA

Post by Jenny Seifert, UWEX Aquatic Invasive Species Outreach Specialist

Peering into a bucket of mud, Maureen Ferry felt like she was looking for a needle in a haystack. That needle was the New Zealand mud snail, a teeny tiny invasive species that was discovered in Black Earth creek , and she and fellow WDNR employees were trying to confirm its presence in the creek.

Eventually, their eyes adjusted, and they realized the bucket was not actually filled with mud, but innumerable mud snails!

New Zealand mud snails are teeny tiny (this dime is normal sized, we swear), which makes using eDNA technology an easier way to detect them. Credit: Paul Skawinski

Hard-to-detect aquatic invasive species like the mud snails are one example of why some resource managers are raving about a new(ish) technology that helps them sniff out unwanted exotic critters: environmental DNA, or eDNA.

Much like the forensics used to solve crimes, eDNA allows managers to use genetic evidence to trace the tracks of an invasive species in a lake or stream, giving them clues as to whether the species is guilty or innocent of an invasion.

“All living things shed DNA, and we can pick it up in the environment,” explains Ferry, who is the statewide aquatic invasive species monitoring coordinator for the WDNR.

They pick up this DNA by collecting water samples from sites they think a certain invasive could be hiding and then extracting all of the genetic material floating around in the water. Using a chemical reaction, they can screen the DNA soup for genetic markers specific to the suspected invader. If the genetic markers appear, it tips managers as to whether the species may have been at the scene and how many of them there might be.

The beauty of this technology is the improved efficiency it gives managers in detecting invasive species. While it won’t help them actually find the needles, it gives them a lead on where in the haystack to look for them, so they can better target their traditional sampling methods, which are otherwise more time consuming.

“It’s a really powerful tool that can help us make better decisions about how we manage our natural resources,” says Chris Merkes, a geneticist at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) who is involved in a partnership with WDNR and the UW-Stevens Point Cooperative Fish Unit to develop and use eDNA technology to monitor the New Zealand mud snail and another troublesome invader, the round goby.

In fact, this month WDNR and USGS will test out a new eDNA tool to investigate whether the round goby, an invasive fish, has moved into Lake Winnebago. It has already invaded the lower Fox River down stream of Lake Winnebago, and WDNR is trying to prevent it from getting into Lake Winnebago. The concern is, an invasion to the lake could give it access to 17 percent of the state’s inland waterways. So this new eDNA tool could help WDNR make more efficient use of its resources by indicating areas where fisheries managers should look for round goby.

The cool thing about this upgraded tool is, once tested, you won’t need to be an expert geneticist to use it. Developed by USGS, it’s a simplified and portable DNA detection kit that allows nearly anyone to perform the genetic testing anywhere. All data detectives will need is a cup of water and an hour to get a reading of whether the goby’s DNA is present or absent from the water.

Volunteers process samples during the test run of a portable eDNA kit for Asian Carp. A similar kit, but designed for the round goby, will be tested this month. Credit: USGS.

The hope is, down the line, the simpler kits will make it easy for citizens to get involved in round goby surveillance in the Winnebago basin, which will put more detectives on the case and make it easier for the DNR to monitor the nuisance fish and make effective decisions.

But even if the eDNA technique detects a species’ genetic material, the suspect is still innocent until proven guilty. There can be red herrings like false negatives or positives, and sometimes genetic evidence is not enough to confirm whether the species is actually in the waterbody – that DNA could be merely a remnant left in the belly of a predator, for example. Sleuthing actual specimens from the lake or stream with traditional sample methods, like fish shocking and catching them in nets, are the only way to close a case.

“It’s a complicated equilibrium that we’re trying to assess, and there’s no finite way to understand exactly how many organisms are in a system at any given time,” says Merkes.

Shortcomings aside, Merkes is excited about the technology’s potential. He thinks it could someday help natural resource agencies improve the conservation of native species.

For example, managers could use it to monitor changes in fish populations at the molecular level, which could inform fishing guidelines, or they could use it to study lake microbiomes to determine their vulnerability to invasive species or diseases.

“Any time we can gain information about a natural system without disrupting it is a great thing,” says Merkes, referring to the non-invasive nature of the mere water sample needed for eDNA as another perk of the technology, compared to trapping methods.

As for the New Zealand mud snail, while it is established Black Earth Creek and Badger Mill Creak in southwest Wisconsin, eDNA evidence collected by WDNR has shown the snail is, so far, innocent of invading other sites in Wisconsin.

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Become an invasive species detective for a day with AIS Snapshot Day

Post by Jenny Seifert, UWEX Aquatic Invasive Species Outreach Specialist

Searching for invasive species in Wisconsin’s 84,000 miles of river, 15,000 lakes and millions of wetland acres is no task for just one person – or one agency, for that matter. That is why the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and partners organize opportunities like the upcoming Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) Snapshot Day, which enlist the help of people from around the state to collect the data needed to protect our waters.

AIS Snapshot Day volunteers spend a day hunting for aquatic invasive species. Photo credit: River Alliance of Wisconsin

AIS Snapshot Day, which will take place August 5th, is a low-commitment, high-impact way for any Wisconsinite to help track the spread of aquatic invasive species. Not to be confused with Snapshot Wisconsin, another citizen science effort that is focused on monitoring wildlife, AIS Snapshot Day is a one-day-only opportunity to learn how to identify aquatic invasive species and then scour a single location for them, with the hope that is opposite of a treasure hunt – that you won’t find any!

The reward of such an opportunity is not only a boost in citizen knowledge about aquatic invasive species, but also more accurate data on where species are present. In fact, in the event’s first year, volunteers collected more data in the single day than other volunteer AIS monitoring programs have been able to collect in an entire calendar year.

Volunteers learn how to identify aquatic invasive species for AIS Snapshot Day. Photo credit: River Alliance of Wisconsin

Having all of that data allows the WDNR to be more efficient and effective in its management of the state’s natural resources, such as its improved ability to target locations of concern. Moreover, having many more eyes looking for invasive species enhances the capacity to detect early populations, which are much easier and cheaper to control or eradicate than populations that have been lingering undetected for a while.

The event started in 2014 as a partnership between WDNR, the River Alliance of Wisconsin and 24 other organizations statewide, with a focus on rivers. This year, the program is expanding in scope to include lakes, and the partnership has grown to include the University of Wisconsin-Extension Lakes and the University of Minnesota-Extension.

Aside from amassing beneficial data, AIS Snapshot Day has enabled other important successes. For example, in 2015, volunteers found invasive faucet snails in the Winnebago system, a new discovery that may have gone undiscovered without their help. While it’s unfortunate to find a new invasive species, knowing that it is present helps WDNR and other resource managers determine how best to manage it.

In another success story, a volunteer applied the knowledge she gained from the event when, on a later occasion, she identified a new invader to Lake Winneconne, water hyacinth, while kayaking. Because of her discovery, the invasive plant was successfully removed from the lake, and WDNR and volunteers are now closely monitoring the lake in case it tries to make a comeback.

Want to be part of this impactful effort? Register to volunteer for this year’s AIS Snapshot Day.

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Put your actions to stop aquatic hitchhikers on the map!

Post by Jenny Seifert, UWEX Aquatic Invasive Species Outreach Specialist

How do you stop aquatic hitchhikers? Add your photo and message to our Landing Blitz Story Map!

Going boating this fourth-of-July weekend? Share how you stop aquatic hitchhikers on our Landing Blitz Story Map.

This holiday weekend, June 30th through July 4th, is the ninth annual Landing Blitz, a statewide effort to remind boaters and other water lovers to use their power to stop the spread of aquatic invasive species, which pose great risks to the health of our lakes and fisheries.

New this year is an interactive way for everyone to share the campaign’s message: a crowdsourced Story Map, which will showcase photos and messages from boaters across Wisconsin about how they protect our waters from aquatic invasive species.

If you use social media, help spread the word about the importance of aquatic invasive species prevention by posting photos and messages using the hashtag #CleanBoatsCleanWaters. You can also share the Story Map and encourage your fellow boating friends to add their voices and faces to the effort.

Together, we are all part of the solution for preventing the spread of aquatic invasive species. So let’s show the world how we do it and empower each other.

Invasive plants and animals, like Eurasian watermilfoil, spiny water fleas and zebra mussels, can spread easily by hitching a ride on boats and other equipment, including trailers, anchors, livewells, buckets and bilges. But all boaters can also easily prevent this by taking the following simple steps every time they enter and leave a boat landing:

  • Inspect your boat, trailer and equipment
  • Remove all attached plants or animals
  • Drain all water from boats, motors, livewells and other equipment
  • Never move live fish away from a waterbody
  • Dispose of unwanted bait in the trash
  • Buy minnows from a Wisconsin bait dealer, and use leftover minnows only if you will be using them on that same waterbody or if no lake or river water or other fish have been added to the container.

Following these steps also helps boaters comply with Wisconsin state law, which prohibits the transport of aquatic invasive species.

Learn more about why Wisconsinites are concerned about invasive species and their impacts to our waters and economy.

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Help make draining your livewell go viral! #JustDrainIt

Post by Jenny Seifert, UWEX Aquatic Invasive Species Outreach Specialist (now at 

Draining livewells and transporting fish on ice helps prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species.

Water left in livewells, bait buckets and bilges is a vehicle for the spread of fish diseases and aquatic invasive species between lakes. That is why draining all equipment before leaving a boat launch  is required in Wisconsin – a requirement that will be underscored at the upcoming statewide Drain Campaign and its hashtag #JustDrainIt.

The annual campaign will take place this weekend, June 9-11. Volunteers will be talking with anglers and boaters at landings around the state and, in some cases, handing out free ice packs as a substitute to keeping fish in water.

New to the Drain Campaign this year is the #JustDrainIt social media blitz, a coordinated way for anglers to help share its message. If you use social media, help spread the word about the importance of draining livewells and other equipment by posting photos and messages using #JustDrainIt.

Wisconsin law prohibits the transport of invasive species because they have negative impacts on our aquatic ecosystems and our economy. Draining your water and, instead, using ice – which many anglers argue does a better job of preserving the flavor of their fish anyway – is the best way to comply with the law and help keep our lakes and fisheries healthy.

The following steps are required by law to prevent aquatic invasive species.

  • INSPECT boats, trailers and equipment.
  • REMOVE all attached aquatic plants and animals.
  • DRAIN all water from boats, vehicles, and equipment, including livewells and buckets containing fish.
  • NEVER MOVE plants or live fish away from a waterbody.
  • DISPOSE of unwanted bait in the trash
  • BUY minnows from a Wisconsin bait dealer. Use leftover minnows only when fishing with them on the same body of water or on other waters as long as no lake or river water or other fish have been added to their container.

Learn more about invasive species and their impacts to Wisconsin’s waters and economy.

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