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Scientists for a day: Argentinian students join UNESCO eDNA initiative in Península Valdés

Monday, 31 July 2023
access_time 3 min read

Last July, students joined an environmental DNA (eDNA) sampling campaign in the ocean areas bordering the pebble beaches of the Península Valdés World Heritage site, as part of the global eDNA expeditions that UNESCO is currently piloting across 25 marine World Heritage sites to better understand ocean biodiversity and the effects of climate change.

Water samples were collected from 5 locations along the coast of Península Valdés by a team of local experts. A total of 30 children from nearby local communities, aged 6 to 15 years old, learned about the eDNA sampling and the importance of scientific research for the conservation of marine species. Southern right whales, southern elephant seals, and South American sea lions accompanied their days of sampling.

The sampling campaign was conducted by the Península Valdés Administration and the Marine Mammal Laboratory of the Center for the Study of Marine Systems (CESIMAR-CONICET), facilitated with the support from the Department of Flora and Wildlife (Dirección de Flora y Fauna Silvestre), and the Ministry of Tourism and Protected Areas of Chubut Province (Ministerio de Turismo y Áreas Protegidas de la provincia del Chubut).

“Conducting this type of innovative scientific research, based on a non-invasive method, is necessary to provide essential information on marine biodiversity in our World Heritage site.”

The team filtered genetic material of species with the help of eDNA citizen-science sampling protocols and equipment provided by UNESCO. Preservation liquid was subsequently added to the samples to fix the eDNA and make them ready to ship to a specialized lab for analysis, alongside other eDNA samples from around the world.

Environmental DNA is an innovative scientific method that can be used to monitor and evaluate ocean biodiversity without the need to extract organisms from their environment. Just one liter of water may contain genetic material from hundreds of species and may help determine the area’s biodiversity richness.

The UNESCO environmental DNA Expedition initiative is being rolled out across 25 marine World Heritage sites between September 2022 and April 2023. The eDNA data is expected to provide a one-off snapshot of biodiversity richness across marine World Heritage sites, particularly for fish species.

By combining the resulting biodiversity data with Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) heat scenario projections, the initiative aims to provide a first glimpse of potential geographic and distribution shifts of fish species as a result of climate change which then in turn can inform conservation decision-making.

The eDNA Expeditions’ resulting data will be made publicly available through the UNESCO Ocean Biodiversity Information System, the world’s largest open science marine species database. Final results are expected to be available in Spring 2024.

The UNESCO eDNA initiative is a joint collaboration between the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and the World Heritage Centre. It is made possible with the support of the Government of Flanders (Kingdom of Belgium) and implemented in the context of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030).

About the Península Valdés World Heritage site (Argentina)

Connected to mainland Argentina only through a narrow strip of land, the mushroom-shaped Península Valdés was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1999. Its calm gulfs, sheltered from the rough South Atlantic, are key breeding, calving and nursing areas of the Southern Right Whale and many other marine mammals, such as Southern Elephant Seal, and Southern Sea Lion. The orcas in this area have developed a unique hunting strategy to adapt to local coastal conditions. The site also hosts important breeding colonies of shorebirds and tens of thousands of nesting Magellanic Penguin.