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Understanding marine predator habitat use in the Mediterranean through eDNA

Dr Simon Goodman (SoB), Dr Elena Valsecchi (University of Milano-Bicocca, Italy)

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Understanding how animals use their habitats in relation to environmental and ecological factors is fundamental to basic ecological studies, evaluating potential exposure to impacts from human activities, and assessing species vulnerability to climate and ecosystem change. Such knowledge is also vital for spatial conservation planning, such as determining where to site protected areas and evaluating how species might interact with existing protected areas.

Marine vertebrates are particularly challenging to study because they are highly mobile, are often in remote areas, and are difficult to observe directly. However, tagging and telemetry studies, combined with the growing availability of remote sensing data and novel spatial statistical tools, is allowing the development of large scale habitat usage for many marine predator species. Such models are becoming increasingly important for marine spatial planning. However, such studies are potentially limited by expense, logistical challenges, and data collection may be focused on relatively small numbers of focal species.

In recent years rapid development of high throughput DNA sequencing technology has facilitated sensitive new approaches to quantifying biodiversity in environmental samples, such as soil and water, collectively known as environmental-DNA (eDNA). These techniques give new ways to detect single species of interest, or to profile species communities from trace amounts of DNA shed into the environment. In the context of marine ecosystems, eDNA may offer complementary and sometimes alternatives to other established approaches such as telemetry and population surveys to evaluating the spatial distribution of biodiversity. Potential benefits include the ability to survey for multiple species simultaneously, and across time series and large spatial areas at relatively low cost.

In this project we will develop and validate new eDNA tools targeted to monitoring marine vertebrates (with a focus on cetaceans, and large predatory fish), and apply them to evaluate spatial and temporal variation in habitat use by the focal species in the Mediterranean Sea, and assess to what extent eDNA based surveys correlate with conventional methods for monitoring marine biodiversity. The work is a collaboration between Dr Simon Goodman (University of Leeds, UK) and Dr Elena Valsecchi (University of Milano-Bicocca, Italy) within the framework of the MeD for Med project, an initiative to develop and apply eDNA to biodiversity monitoring in the Mediterranean Sea.

With support from Italian shipping companies, and marine mammal observer programmes, we will use passenger ferries traversing Mediterranean routes as mobile sampling platforms. These routes are ideal since they traverse many known marine biodiversity hotspots, and collaboration with marine mammal observer programmes allow cross checking of eDNA results against visual detections of cetaceans. In addition we will also undertake systematic sampling of other locations based on existing published data and models of Mediterranean marine biodiversity, to evaluate the predictive capacity of eDNA tools. Ultimately such eDNA tools have potential to become an essential part of biodiversity monitoring tool kits, with direct implication for conservation management, and evaluating environmental impacts from human activities. 


1. Develop and validate novel eDNA tools for detection and monitoring marine vertebrates with a particular focus on cetaceans and large predatory fish.

2. Develop efficient ship-based eDNA sampling platforms, and compare eDNA surveys against marine mammal observer records.

3. Compare eDNA measures of diversity against existing data on spatial marine biodiversity in the Mediterranean to evaluate the utility of eDNA as a marine biodiversity monitoring tool. 

Expected outcomes

New eDNA tools for marine biodiversity monitoring; new streamlined sampling pipelines that are suitable for routine deployment on regular shipping, by non-specialists; new data on cetacean and other marine predator habitat use in the Mediterranean; the potential to support and refine impact assessments and spatial marine planning currently achieved with other data sources. 

Related undergraduate subjects:

  • Biodiversity
  • Biodiversity conservation
  • Bioinformatics
  • Biology
  • Conservation
  • Conservation biology
  • Ecology
  • Environmental biology
  • Environmental conservation
  • Evolution
  • Forensic science
  • Genetics
  • Molecular ecology
  • Natural sciences
  • Spatial ecology
  • Statistics
  • Zoology