On the Hunt

DNA barcodes could assist tracking of illegal bushmeat

AlligatorOfficials struggling to monitor the flourishing bushmeat trade may soon get some help. Researchers say that a simple genetic test called DNA barcoding can distinguish many wildlife species, offering a possible way to identify illegal animal products.

Bushmeat is now exported across the world, with illegal trade estimated at $5 billion to $8 billion per year. Some species are protected under laws and treaties, but determining the identity of a wildlife product can be difficult because the animal is usually processed.

The researchers analyzed specimens of frequently hunted species from Africa and South America, including antelope, monkeys, alligators, and crocodiles. They were able to extract high-quality genetic data from 88 percent of their samples, even specimens that were more than two decades old. Closely related species showed an average of 9.8 percent difference in a key gene fragment, the team reports in Conservation Genetics.

Investigators could check for these unique DNA sequences, or barcodes, to accurately identify wildlife products from endangered species, the authors say. The team is now developing a test that would allow even more degraded samples to be analyzed. – Roberta Kwok

Source: Eaton, M., Meyers, G., Kolokotronis, S., Leslie, M., Martin, A., & Amato, G. (2009). Barcoding bushmeat: molecular identification of Central African and South American harvested vertebrates Conservation Genetics DOI: 10.1007/s10592-009-9967-0

Image © spxChrome, iStockPhoto.com