New research method offers hope for dwindling aquatic species

Scientists have discovered an easier method of monitoring the otherwise elusive great crested newt

A pioneering new survey technique that analyses DNA traces in water is set to revolutionise the way scientists monitor great crested newts across the UK.

The new method allows researchers to quickly and easily determine whether newts are present in ponds and streams, offering fresh hope for future great crested newt numbers, which have declined dramatically in the last century.

Although the species has protection under UK and European law, a shortage of suitable breeding and resting places – and deterioration of existing habitats – is a major cause for this decline. Half of the UK’s ponds were lost during the 20th century, and of those that remain, 80% are in a poor state.

“Previously it has been impossible to determine whether the great crested newt population was going up or down because it was just too time-consuming and expensive to visit enough sites to get a reliable national or regional picture,” said Dr Jeremy Biggs, project leader and director of Freshwater Habitats Trust.

That has now changed thanks to the new technique, which correctly detected newts in 91% of the 250 ponds tested – a far more accurate and effective result than traditional methods, which include counting newts by torchlight, bottle trapping and searching for eggs. It was also at least 10 times faster to detect species than was previously possible.

Freshwater and wetlands are among the most threatened habitats in the natural world, so the research, led by the Freshwater Habitats Trust, the University of Kent and genetics company SpyGen, offers great potential in aiding the conservation of many rare and endangered aquatic animals.