Studying ecology using environmental forensics

02 Dec 2015 NUS researchers have developed forensic techniques for using DNA from fecal samples to collect ecological data for Singapore’s critically endangered banded leaf monkey population.

Many species in urban environments are threatened with extinction. For example, Singapore’s banded leaf monkey (see Figure) population comprises only 40 individuals although the species was once common. Effective conservation requires fundamental knowledge of the natural history of a species which can then be used for habitat enhancement and captive breeding. A team led by Prof Rudolf MEIER from the Department of Biological Sciences in NUS developed techniques for using DNA from fecal samples to simultaneously gather information on the diet, monkey genetics, microbiome, and intestinal parasites. Singapore’s banded leaf monkeys feed on a diverse diet (>50 plant species including rubber), are highly inbred, and are infested by multiple gut parasites including nematodes.

They demonstrate that metagenomics is a powerful and quick tool for characterizing natural history of mammal species for which very little is known. This is important given that many species are in decline and require conservation interventions. For example, they can now make concrete recommendations to the National Parks Board which allow for habitat enhancement. In addition, the biological information on Singapore’s population will be important for captive breeding and/or reintroductions.

The newly developed methods are now being used for a range of other endangered mammal populations ranging from pangolins, over leopard cat, to other leaf monkeys.

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Banded leaf monkey in Singapore. [Image credit: Andie ANG]

 

References

1. Ang A, Ismail MRB, Meier R. “Reproduction and infant pelage colouration of the banded leaf monkey (Mammalia: Primates: Cercopithecidae) in Singapore.” The Raffles Bulletin of Zoology 58 (2010) 411.

2. Ang A, Srivathsan A, Md-Zain BD, Ismail MRB, Meier R. “Low genetic variability in the recovering urban banded leaf monkey population of Singapore.” The Raffles Bulletin of Zoology 60 (2012) 589.

3. Srivathsan A, Ang A, Vogler AP, Meier R. "Importance of fecal metagenomics for the simultaneous assessment of diet, parasites, and population genetics of an understudied mammal." submitted.