The wildlife genetics laboratory, housed in the Rocky Mountain Research Station on the south edge of the University of Montana campus, takes on some high-profile studies, including several cases where species are currently under investigation to be put on the endangered species list.
The lab specializes in non-invasive DNA samples, which come from items such as hair, feathers or scat found after an animal has passed through an area. With these samples, researchers can identify individual animals, give field workers population estimates or answer questions like, how closely related are wolverines found hundreds of miles apart.
“If you have science, controversy doesn’t go away, but it’s certainly minimized. Without science, it’s just opinion, and opinions you can have 20 opinions and people can get a good fight going,” said Michael Schwartz, the conservation genetics team leader. “So that’s our job, provide facts, provide solid scientific understandings.”
The lab carries out its research using a wide spectrum of experience. Many current researchers, such as graduate student Taylor Wilcox, were former undergraduate students who got their start helping with lab projects, and were then brought in to conduct their own research.
Wilcox’s project focuses on environmental DNA left behind by fish. The eDNA Wilcox studies includes pieces of animal tissue such as urine or scales that have been flushed off a species and remain in the surrounding environment.
Wilcox’s project is one of around 35 projects the Wildlife Genetics lab is working on. As part of the research branch of the U.S. Forest Service, these projects come from all over the world.
The lab studies everything from sheep in Alaska to wolves in Italy. Most of these projects focus on genetic analysis, and many of the samples are collected without ever having to disturb the animal.
These projects all took different routes to end up in a lab in Missoula, but both government and private organizations seek out this lab for important research questions.
“We’ve been around for 10 years plus, and we have a pretty good reputation,” Schwartz said. “The phone’s not ringing right now, but that’s amazing.”
Wilcox focuses on DNA left behind from fish in rivers and streams around Montana. He uses a filter that can trap minute pieces of eDNA from the water, then takes the sample back to the lab, where he stimulates the DNA to multiply to detectable levels. This allows Wilcox to study elusive species, such as the native bull trout, whose naturally low densities would make them difficult to study.
The use of eDNA is a relatively new technique.
“It’s something that other labs are doing, but I do think it’s cutting edge. The first paper that I know of looking at eDNA was done by a researcher in France on bullfrogs in 2008, so we’re five years in,” Wilcox said.
One of Wilcox’s fellow lab members is Todd Cross, a Ph.D. candidate studying sage grouse in eastern Montana.
Where the birds put on their mating display, people will move in and collect feathers left behind, stuff them into envelopes, and send the feathers to Cross, providing him with thousands of samples.
“I think we’re up to 3,000 plus samples. That’s huge, if you had to capture 3,000 animals, the budget alone would stop that project from going forward,” Cross said.
Cross, who has an undergraduate student also working on the project, uses these samples to identify where birds are moving and breeding in the landscape, telling him which populations are isolated. Cross says his work will help wildlife managers decide which areas are critical to protect so that sage grouse can continue to survive.