Do Blowflies Top Camera Traps for Mammal Tracking?

Researchers test the insect's gut DNA to see if it can give conservationists a better count of species than traditional methods.

If you want to monitor mammal populations, how about looking in the guts of a blowfly to see where it's been, or ... on what it's been?

Researchers from the University of Malaya wanted to test the effectiveness of just that approach, so they examined blowfly gut DNA material culled from tropical forest reserves in peninsular Malaysia. They wanted to see what mammal evidence might lie within and then compare those results with traditional mammal survey approaches such as scat collection, wire cages, capture nets and camera traps.

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The annoying flies are a good place to look for evidence of mammals in the neighborhood, after all. They aren't terribly choosy about their dining habits and spend time feasting on the waste, wounds and carcasses of wild animals, unwittingly becoming samplers of mammalian DNA.

According to the researchers, blowfly-gut DNA found a wider body-size range of flying and non-flying mammals, compared with more traditional approaches.

The fly guts even tipped researchers off to a near-threatened species -- a dusky leaf monkey -- that had not been detected by the usual methods.

The guts also topped camera traps -- among the most popular mammal-survey tools -- at uncovering the presence of the widest groupings of flying and tree-living creatures.

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However, the team noted that different survey methods seemed to detect different mammals, suggesting that the fastest way to find the broadest range of animals was to use several methods at once.

That would mean the humble, bothersome blowfly could elevate its station in life, at least for conservation biologists.

"With further calibration," the scientists wrote, "blowfly-derived DNA may join the list of traditional field methods."

And, for the completists out there, the researchers noted that they didn't find exclusively mammal material. DNA from other vertebrates such as turtles, fish, birds, lizards and snakes were also detected from blowfly guts.

Results of the study have been published in the journal Genome.