CSI Wildlife Part Two: 2 Eco-Crimes Unmasked by DNA Forensics

CSI Wildlife Returns

The first episode of CSI Wildlife was about finding ivory poachers using DNA forensics. This new installment is bigger and better. 2 new eco-crimes!

How Does it Work?

"The growing databases of animal genes and falling costs of DNA testing have given wildlife researchers and environmentalists a powerful new tool to identify new species and protect endangered animals. Scientists now know the genetic signatures of some species so well that they can tell what region or population it came from by examining the DNA of an individual animal."

Read on for the 2 eco-crimes.Popular Mechanics has a cool article about 5 eco-crimes, though one of them we already covered about a month ago and the two others you'll have to go over there to read about (we didn't think they were a good fit for TreeHugger). Here are the 2 others:

Tracking Dead Whales in Japan and Korean

It is well-known to most TreeHuggers that Japan has been strongly opposed to whaling bans and has kept hunting whales "for scientific purposes" (great cartoon about that here) and allowing "accidental" by-catches to be sold.

Researcher Scott Baker and his colleagues at the Oregon State University have decided to find out more about how many and which species of whales ended up in Japanese and Korean markets. They did DNA testing and found that:

Results of Baker's unorthodox field work, reported to the International Whaling Commission, suggest that a shadowy world of unreported whaling may be cutting much deeper into the world's already imperiled populations than anyone realizes. Baker's team found whale meat for sale in Japan that came from far more fin whales than the nation reported killing. It also found meat from humpback, sei, Bryde's and minke whales on the open market. In Korea, the researchers calculated how long the meat from a whale is likely to remain on the market, about six weeks, and estimated that 827 minke whales passed through Korean markets from 1999 to 2003, almost twice the number that Korea reported as bycatch. Populations of minke whales in the Sea of Japan may face extinction from such intense harvesting, Baker says.

Protecting Sharks

Sharks definitely have a PR problem, and sadly, they have a lot more reasons to be afraid of us than we do to be afraid of them. Jean-Michel Cousteau has been ringing the alarm for a while: Sharks need our help!

One way to avoid extinction is to figure out how many are actually killed. Here again, DNA can help:

"University of Hawaii researchers used DNA to determine what species of shark fins are sold in Hong Kong. By combining that data with records from shark fin trading houses, the researchers determined that the volume of shark fins represented in the trade is three to four times higher than reported catches. "

That's the problem with trusting reported numbers. Fishermen individually have an incentive to report the lowest possible number, while as a group they would benefit from being honest to avoid ecosystem collapse. It's a prisoner's dilemma game.

Another good scientific technique to find eco-crimes is the use of living bacteria biosensors.

Via Popular Mechanics

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Tags: Animals | Oceans | Whales