Member Highlight: USM Biology Professor Uses Environmental DNA To Verify Smalltooth Sawfish In Mississippi Waters

2019-08-12T14:51:11+00:00 July 29, 2019|

(Credit: D Ross Robertson/Smithsonian Institution)

(From University of Southern Mississippi/ By Van Arnold) — Dr. Nicole Phillips, assistant professor of biology in The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) School of Biological, Environmental, and Earth Sciences, and vice president of the Sawfish Conservation Society, has verified the presence of smalltooth sawfish in Mississippi waters using environmental DNA (eDNA) with the assistance of USM graduate student Ryan Lehman. This research is supported by the state of Mississippi with funding from the National Institutes of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Sawfish are a type of ray, but they have a long nose surrounded by teeth, which inspired their name. Five sawfish species are recognized, and they are all Endangered or Critically Endangered. Dr. Phillips explained that most sawfish species are found in Australia, except for what is presumed to be the last viable population of smalltooth sawfish near the southwest coast of Florida; however, in 2014, a smalltooth sawfish was caught near Deer Island off the coast of Mississippi. Since then, there have been several more reports of juvenile sawfish in Mississippi and Louisiana, and Dr. Phillips noted that their presence may indicate sawfish are giving birth in Mississippi waters.

According to Dr. Phillips, the traditional way to study marine species was to put out nets and hope to catch a specimen. This method requires permits, can put undue stress on the animal, and unlikely to be successful in the case of rare and Critically Endangered species. Therefore, she created an eDNA analysis system to find smalltooth sawfish without capturing them. She collects water samples and tests them to detect smalltooth sawfish eDNA, or DNA left behind by the sawfish…

Read the full article here: https://www.usm.edu/news/2019/release/usm-biology-professor-environmental-dna.php