“Species from Feces,” a unique new DNA barcoding tool developed by researchers from Northern Arizona University’s Bat Ecology and Genetics Lab in the School of Forestry, is generating widespread interest by mainstream and scientific news outlets—both nationally and internationally—such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, California Academy of Sciences, PLOS Research News, Cosmos, American Physiological Society, mental_floss and Seeker. Most importantly, the initiative has generated considerable interest from federal and state agencies, mining and wind companies and international non-governmental organizations focused on bat research and conservation.

The interdisciplinary “Bat Lab” team, led by co-directors Faith Walker, senior research scientist, and Carol Chambers, professor in the School of Forestry, is comprised of bat ecologists, wildlife geneticists, bioinformaticists, genetics research specialists and field technicians. The team produced an article detailing their genetic assay that was recently published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

“Many bat species are endangered,” said Walker, “but their small size, nocturnal nature and ability to fly can make bats difficult to study and identify. However, their fecal pellets, known as guano, are a readily available source of DNA that can be collected in a non-invasive way from roosts even when the bats are absent.” Samples are typically collected in field locations, such as inside mines and caves and under bridges.

Faith Walker

Senior research scientist Faith Walker and an interdisciplinary team developed a unique new barcoding tool to help identify bat species from DNA in their guano.

The tool identifies bat species from DNA in their guano, borrowing genomic sequencing and bioinformatics methods recently used in studies of microbial communities. The assay can be applied to guano samples containing DNA from multiple species and with samples of unknown age. As only a small DNA segment, called a mini-barcode, needs to be sequenced, the tool is rapid and inexpensive.

“Species from Feces is a genetic assay that can take a gob of guano from a bat roost and determine all the species that contributed to the sample, and can do so for bat species from around the world, including Africa, Asia, Australia, the Caribbean, Europe, the Pacific Islands and the Americas,” said Walker. “With global declines in bat populations and emerging diseases such as White-nose Syndrome in North America, it is increasingly important to know where specific species are roosting, and to verify identification of species that appear similar.”

To further bat research and conservation globally, the team offers species identification services. The team also developed a database, accessible via the NAU website, which enables users to determine whether Species from Feces can identify species that interest them.

Walker developed and chaired a conservation genetics session at the International Bat Research Conference in South Africa in August. The team also presented updated findings recently at a conference of the North American Society for Bat Research. As a result of the publication and presentations, the team is now receiving frequent requests from a variety of researchers, environmental consultants and federal and state government agencies for their bat species identification services. Profits raised will help support the ongoing research conducted by the Bat Lab team.

 

Species from Feces goes mobile

What’s next for the Bat Lab? Walker and the team are now developing a portable version of the tool called Species from Feces Mobile. “The mobile tool enables scientists to go to remote places all over the world to genetically search caves and other roosts for critically endangered bats using guano samples,” said Walker. “They can sequence the samples right there in the field with palm-sized sequencers.”