Environmental DNA at Parks Canada

All living creatures contain DNA with parts that are unique to their species. These parts are like a genetic fingerprint, they can tell us what species the DNA belongs to. When species shed this DNA from their tissues, hair, and feces into the environment, it’s called “environmental DNA” or eDNA.

By sampling sediment, water, and snow for eDNA, Parks Canada and partners are learning which species are, or have been, present in the environment—even those that are rare or very hard to see.

eDNA is one innovative tool Parks Canada is using to inform monitoring programs as we work to protect and restore species and habitats.

Jump ahead to learn how Parks Canada and partners are using eDNA to:

Clues for conservation

Many factors affect the lifetime of DNA in the environment. In general, eDNA can last in the environment for days, weeks, or even years when found in cold conditions. This means it can provide important clues about what species have been present over time. This makes eDNA is an efficient monitoring tool.

eDNA can reduce the need to directly observe species, and can shed light on what species are using, or have used, an environment. It is also less invasive to use eDNA than some traditional monitoring methods. This is an important consideration for sensitive species and environments.

A close up of someone's hand holding a small turtle.
The endangered Eastern Musk Turtle can be hard to find during monitoring

Some species are more rare to see than others. Using eDNA helps us to proactively protect species before recovery is too late.

Dr. Prabir Roy
Ecosystem Scientist, Parks Canada

Watch how staff at Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba are using eDNA results to help manage the invasive Zebra Mussel

Text transcript

[Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba]

Over the winter of 2022/23 Parks Canada staff learned about the presence of Zebra Mussel eDNA in Clear Lake.

While no Zebra Mussels have been found, staff have increased monitoring and sampling of lake water.

Park staff have been working with members of the Keeseekoowenin Ojibway First Nation.

This is what that work has looked like...

Arrive bright and early!

Time to get packed up.

Gear has been specially cleaned.

Partners from Keeseekoowenin Objibway First Nation are supporting the work.

Shelters are used to keep equipment from freezing up.

Drilling the hole to collect the samples.

Equipment must be kept very clean.

Reviewing today's sites.

A Kemmerer is used to collect water samples.

A weight is used to close the sampler.

Samples are collected in sterile bags and transported to the lab.

An ultra-clean lab space has been set up.

Pumps are set up to filter the samples.

DNA in the water is collected on filters.

The filtering process.

A used filter (left) compared to a new filter (right).

Filters are preserved for different kinds of tests.

A lab in Winnipeg tests filters for Zebra Mussel DNA.

When one site is complete, on to the next!

So far no other evidence of Zebra Mussels has been detected.

Parks Canada staff will continue to work hard to prevent Zebra Mussels--or any other invasive species--from becoming established in...

Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba.

Parks Canada


Important answers to conservation questions

It can take months of fieldwork to monitor ecosystems using traditional methods. Sometimes species are too rare or too small to spot. Scientists can detect eDNA in a fraction of this time. This makes eDNA a valuable complement to traditional biomonitoring methods as we seek answers to important conservation questions.

eDNA may help answer questions about:

  • what species have been in an environment
  • what habitats they are using and when
  • whether an ecosystem is changing
  • if restoration efforts are working
A Parks Canada staff person uses a long rod and tubing attached to their special backpack in the water. A large round container is in the water next to them.
Parks Canada is using a backpack eDNA sampler to detect harmful Whirling Disease on the Bow River. The commercial eDNA sampler pumps water through a filter system. The filters are then tested for Myxobolus cerebralius eDNA.

Teaming up for success

Like much of what Parks Canada does, working with eDNA requires collaboration with partners, including:

  • Indigenous nations and communities
  • research labs
  • universities
  • and others

We incorporate eDNA, and other new techniques, into our conservation toolkit. This helps us better understand how to protect species-at-risk and respond to threats, like invasive species and climate change.

Learn how we are using and testing eDNA as a tool to better protect and conserve ecosystems

  • Protecting endangered species

    British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island

    Parks Canada and local First Nations are sampling remote rivers in the West Coast Trail unit of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve in British Columbia. They are confirming the presence and absence of important food sources for the Southern Resident Killer Whale, like Chinook and Chum Salmon. Parks Canada is also working with forage fish citizen science groups. They are sampling the sand for eDNA to better understand the distribution of spawning habitat of forage fish that salmon rely on, like the Pacific Sand Lance and Surf Smelt.

    This information supports efforts to conserve these important food species and their habitats. This work, in turn, helps protect the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales.

    Select images to enlarge

    Two people in winter clothes lower a coring device attached to a large tripod into a hole cut in the thick snow-covered ice.
    Namekus Lake during the eDNA core sampling

    Conservation staff in Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan are using eDNA to shed light on a species now gone.

    In an interview in the 1990s, Allan Bird, a Chief of Montreal Lake Cree Nation and Senator in Prince Albert Grand Council, shared Traditional Knowledge with staff in the park. Allan was raised in what-are-now park boundaries and was a land user.

    The information he shared on place names revealed that Namekus Lake (in Cree ‘namekos’ translates to Lake Trout) once held Lake Trout. He remembered them there before he left to serve in the Korean War, but noticed they were gone from the lake when he returned.

    By combining Traditional Knowledge with eDNA and radioisotopic dating techniques, Parks Canada hopes to pinpoint the time that the Lake Trout disappeared.

    eDNA allowed us to combine Traditional Knowledge with western science to help tell the story of trout in our park. Traditional Knowledge provided the larger context.

    Brad Lloyd
    Ecologist Team Leader, Prince Albert National Park

    Parks Canada and Queen’s University are studying the presence and absence of the Eastern Musk Turtle at Thousand Islands National Park in Ontario. Ordinarily, conservation staff would canoe, flip lily pads, and swim through wetlands to spot the elusive turtle. With eDNA, staff are able to detect the at-risk turtle in near real-time.

    An aerial view of a river running through a lush green wetland. The river contains some green algae.
    Parks Canada detected the Eastern Musk Turtle using eDNA at Thousand Islands National Park
    A close up of someone's hand holding a small turtle.
    The endangered Eastern Musk Turtle

    Thousand Islands has a number of species at risk. It’s a challenge to find them and confirm their presence. It’s a great way to find species like turtles, reduce search time, and find new locations by grabbing a sample.

    Mathieu Lecompte
    Resource Management Officer, Thousand Islands National Park

    Conservation scientists at Fundy National Park and the University of New Brunswick are exploring the use of eDNA to monitor the endangered Inner Bay of Fundy Atlantic Salmon. Normally it takes months of intense field work to monitor this population. Staff would swim through rivers, use trap nets and electrofishing. Now, an eDNA water sample can determine the presence and absence of Atlantic Salmon.

    Researchers are comparing the effectiveness of traditional monitoring efforts against eDNA to determine abundance—with positive results! Conservation scientists are hopeful that eDNA can be used to complement traditional methods. They also hope to scale up this work to monitor the endangered Atlantic Salmon around the whole inner bay.

    A researcher sits on a boulder at the edge of a river as they use a long pole in the water to collect a water sample.
    A University of New Brunswick PhD candidate collects eDNA with Parks Canada to monitor endangered Atlantic Salmon at Fundy National Park
    A researcher kneels in the water holding a plastic beaker and tube with gloved hands as they collect a water sample.

    Conservation staff at Prince Edward Island National Park have collaborated with GEN-FISH (a national genomic fish research project) and University of Manitoba. Together, they are developing a method for identifying fish species using eDNA. They are also piloting the use of eDNA to monitor benthic invertebrates as part of the STREAM program.

    Conservation staff are now comparing eDNA results against traditional freshwater monitoring methods. They recently discovered a new freshwater mussel in the park. They intend to work with the University of Prince Edward Island to look for this mussel in more locations across the watershed using eDNA.

    A Parks Canada employee sits in a canoe while using a long pole to take water samples.
    One of the permanent CABIN sampling sites in Prince Edward Island National Park, where eDNA is being piloted to identify benthic invertebrates
    A small pond surrounded by woods.
    Parks Canada is using eDNA at PEI National Park to monitor the health of freshwater ecosystems

  • Cataloging species and measuring health

    British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba

    Parks Canada, Council of the Haida Nation, Hakai Institute, and McGill University are using eDNA to learn about species in different marine habitats at Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site in Haida Gwaii, British Columbia. They collaborated with many partners on eDNA work, including:

    • Council of the Haida Nation
    • Hakai Institute
    • McGill University

    Nearshore and offshore marine habitats have different community structures. Conservation scientists are using eDNA based metabarcoding to identify many of the species that are using eelgrass, kelp, and rocky bottom habitats.

    In kelp forests, they found more fish species through eDNA than in one-time visual surveys, although eDNA was less specific than visual surveys for some species. In some cases, the eDNA markers could detect “rockfish” but could not distinguish between species of rockfish.

    You can’t replace traditional methods of observation with eDNA because the results need context. We are using eDNA to augment and broaden our sampling, and to sample places we can’t get visually.

    Dr. Lynn Lee
    Ecologist Team Leader, Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site

    This information helps managers and scientists better protect and restore these important marine habitats.

    Two researchers working in a boat on the water while collecting a water sample.
    Parks Canada staff and a researcher from Hakai Institute are using eDNA to better understand the community structures of marine habitats. The researcher uses a gloved hand to avoid contaminating the sample with his own DNA.
    Back on the research vessel, the eDNA sample is carefully filtered for later analyses in the lab.

    Parks Canada is inventorying fish species in the Peace-Athabasca Delta in Wood Buffalo National Park. This work was done collaboratively with:

    • GEN-FISH
    • University of Guelph
    • University of Manitoba
    • Mikisew Cree First Nation
    • Fort Chipewyan Metis Nation
    • Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation

    The Delta is often a challenging place to monitor, requiring nets, electrofishing, and days of time. Now, water samples are being collected to monitor fish populations and changes over time using eDNA.

    Conservation staff collected water samples with an Indigenous Community Based Monitoring program and GEN-FISH. Information from eDNA can also be used to show the potential impacts of development projects, like changes in the presence and distribution of species.

    Select images to enlarge

    Staff at Wapusk National Park in Manitoba are working with GEN-FISH to use eDNA to develop the first full park-wide inventory of fish species. Since only a water sample is needed, using eDNA reduces equipment needs and workload. It is also a non-intrusive way to monitor fish.

    An aerial view of wetlands and ponds.
    Parks Canada and GEN-FISH are using eDNA to create an inventory of fish at Wapusk National Park
    A Parks Canada staff person uses a clear jar to collect a water sample.

  • Raising the alarm early on the presence of invasive species

    Mountain national parks, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec

    Many Parks Canada sites are investigating the use of eDNA as an early detection tool for invasive species. Conservation staff at Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay national parks are using eDNA to look for the presence of the parasite that causes whirling disease in certain fish.

    This parasite has not yet been detected in the Pacific drainage basins of Canada, home to Trout, Charr, Salmon, and Whitefish. Using eDNA, staff may be able to better limit the introduction and spread of invasive species through early detection and intervention.

    A Parks Canada staff person uses a long rod and tubing attached to their special backpack in the water. A large round container is in the water next to them.
    Parks Canada is using eDNA alongside sentinel fish cages to monitor for the presence of Whirling Disease in the mountain national parks
    Two staff persons process eDNA samples on the ground near the water using small lab equipment.

    Members of the Ontario Water Soldier Working Group are using eDNA in Trent-Severn Waterway National Historic Site to track and prevent the spread of Water Soldier. This invasive aquatic plant has sharp, serrated edges and overtakes native plants. Researchers have detected Water Soldier at varying strengths depending on the location using eDNA.

    This tool is helping to manage the aquatic invasion. eDNA helps researchers identify areas to find and remove newly-established Water Soldier plants. This work is helping to inform control and eradication efforts to remove this destructive species from the waterway.

    A close up of a person uses gloved hands to hold a green leafy aquatic plant with serrated edges.
    The invasive Water Soldier
    A dense cluster of a semi-submerged aquatic plant near and along a lock in a canal.
    The invasive aquatic plant can clog up the lock system in canals

    Parks Canada is taking a similar approach at Chambly Canal National Historic Site in Quebec. Resource management staff are using eDNA to detect the Round Goby. This invasive fish can eat thousands of native fish eggs in minutes. It has not yet been detected in the Chambly Canal.

    A Parks Canada employee holds a long rod into shallow water from the shore.
    Parks Canada is using eDNA to test for the invasive Round Goby fish at Chambly Canal National Historic Site
    A close up of a small device on the ground with a container and tubing attached to it.

    It costs more to eradicate invasive species than to prevent them.

    Siena Daudelin
    Resource Management Officer, Chambly National Historic Site

    Parks Canada is using eDNA as an early prevention tool against invasive species. Their findings will support the creation of a rapid response plan in cases where the fish is detected in new waters.

A promising new tool

eDNA is one tool Parks Canada is using to help monitor and restore healthy ecosystems. It shows promise as an innovative, less invasive, and efficient tool to complement traditional monitoring. Parks Canada and partners will continue to explore this and other new and emerging conservation tools.

An illustration of 14 different fish species, each a different size, shape and colour.
The fish species that researchers detected using eDNA in the Peace-Athabasca Delta at Wood Buffalo National Park

Date modified :