Trails of river monsters: Detecting critically endangered Mekong giant catfish Pangasianodon gigas using environmental DNA
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Pressures on freshwater biodiversity in Southeast Asia are accelerating, yet the status and conservation needs of many of the region’s iconic fish species are poorly known. The Mekong is highly species diverse and supports four of the six largest freshwater fish globally, three of which, including Mekong giant catfish (Pangasianodon gigas), are Critically Endangered. Emerging environmental DNA (eDNA) techniques have potential for monitoring threatened freshwater biodiversity, yet have not been applied in complex and biodiverse tropical ecosystems such as the Mekong. We developed species-specific primers for amplifying Mekong giant catfish DNA. In situ validation demonstrated that the DNA amplification was successful for all samples taken in reservoirs with known presence of Mekong giant catfish independent of fish density. We collected water samples from six deep pools on the Mekong, identified through Local Ecological Knowledge, in Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Thailand. DNA was extracted and amplified from these samples using the designed primers and probes. Mekong giant catfish DNA was detected from one sample from the species’ presumed spawning grounds on the Mekong mainstream, near the border between northern Thailand and Lao PDR. eDNA sampling using species-specific primers has potential for surveying and monitoring poorly known species from complex tropical aquatic environments. However accounting for false absences is likely to be required for the method to function with precision when applied to extremely rare species that are highly dispersed within a large river system. We recommend that such approach be utilised more widely by freshwater conservation practitioners for specific applications. The method is best suited for baseline biodiversity assessments or to identify and prioritise locations for more rigorous sampling. Our methods are particularly relevant for systems or species with limited baseline data or with physical characteristics that logistically limit the application of conventional methods. Such attributes are typical of large tropical rivers such as the Mekong, Congo, or Amazon.
Global Ecology and Conservation
© 2016 The Authors. Published by Elsevier B.V. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/).