Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units Program: Washington
Education, Research and Technical Assistance for Managing Our Natural Resources

Bach, Bryan H., et al. "Identifying individual ungulates from fecal DNA: a comparison of field collection methods to maximize efficiency, ease, and success." Mammalian Biology (2022): 1-12.


Non-invasive genetic sampling can facilitate the identification of individual animals across a landscape, with applications to management and conservation. Fecal material is a readily available source of DNA, and various methods exist for collecting fecal samples for DNA preservation. In particular, swab methods offer considerable promise, but their utility in real-world field contexts remains relatively untested. We systematically compared multiple genetic fecal sampling methods across all stages of data collection and analysis, including sampling in the field, DNA extraction in the lab, and identification of individuals using microsatellite genotyping. We collected 112 fecal samples from black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) in the field in Mendocino County, California, across a range of sample conditions of unknown age. We systematically compared the efficiency, ease, and genotyping success of three methods for field collection and storage of ungulate fecal samples: whole pellets in ethanol, whole dry pellets in paper envelopes, and cotton swabs in buffer. Storage method, sample condition, and their interaction predicted genotyping success in the top binomial GLMMs. We found that swabbing pellets resulted in the greatest percentage of individually identifiable genotypes (81%, compared to 60% for dry samples and 56% for ethanol), despite lower DNA concentrations. While swabbing pellets requires a greater time investment in the field, the samples are easier and safer to store and transport, and subsequent labwork is more efficient as compared to whole-pellet collection methods. We, therefore, recommend the swab method for most contexts. We provide additional recommendations and field protocols based on subsequent collection of 2284 swab samples for a larger monitoring study of the deer population, given that this large number of samples spanned a range of sample conditions and time spent in storage.