Environmental DNA reduces the phantom diversity of sharks and rays in turbid marine habitats

Published on
06. September 2021

Seeing through sedimented waters: environmental DNA reduces the phantom diversity of sharks and rays in turbid marine habitats

Yin Cheong Aden Ip, Jia Jin Marc Chang, Kelvin K P Lim, Zeehan Jaafar, Benjamin J Wainwright, Danwei Huang


Background: Sharks and rays are some of the most threatened marine taxa due to the high levels of bycatch and significant demand for meat and fin-related products in many Asian communities. At least 25% of shark and ray species are considered to be threatened with extinction. In particular, the density of reef sharks in the Pacific has declined to 3-10% of pre-human levels. Elasmobranchs are thought to be sparse in highly urbanised and turbid environments. Low visibility coupled with the highly elusive behaviour of sharks and rays pose a challenge to diversity estimation and biomonitoring efforts as sightings are limited to chance encounters or from carcasses ensnared in nets. Here we utilised an eDNA metabarcoding approach to enhance the precision of elasmobranch diversity estimates in urbanised marine environments.

Results: We applied eDNA metabarcoding on seawater samples to detect elasmobranch species in the hyper-urbanised waters off Singapore. Two genes-vertebrate 12S and elasmobranch COI-were targeted and amplicons subjected to Illumina high-throughput sequencing. With a total of 84 water samples collected from nine localities, we found 47 shark and ray molecular operational taxonomic units, of which 16 had species-level identities. When data were compared against historical collections and contemporary sightings, eDNA detected 14 locally known species as well as two potential new records.

Conclusions: Local elasmobranch richness uncovered by eDNA is greater than the seven species sighted over the last two decades, thereby reducing phantom diversity. Our findings demonstrate that eDNA metabarcoding is effective in detecting shark and ray species despite the challenges posed by the physical environment, granting a more consistent approach to monitor these highly elusive and threatened species.

BMC Ecol Evol. 2021 Sep 6;21(1):166. DOI: 10.1186/s12862-021-01895-6


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