He Piko, He Repo: Environmental DNA as a biomonitoring tool for wetland restoration

Wetlands are biodiversity hotspots, harbouring distinctive species while providing numerous ecosystem services. Unfortunately, throughout human civilisation, they have been systematically degraded, resulting in a dramatic global loss in wetland extent, the establishment of invasive species and the extinction of many natives and, in Aotearoa New Zealand, impediment of the special connection Māori share with their repo (wetlands). Monitoring wetland biodiversity to take appropriate restorative action and minimise further degradation is imperative, particularly in the face of climate change. Environmental DNA (eDNA; genetic material released by organisms into the environment) is an increasingly popular non-invasive biomonitoring method that provides information about the presence or potential absence of species inhabiting a given ecosystem, but has yet to be optimised for wetland environments. My thesis aimed to address the consequences of colonisation on the relationship between Māori and their wetlands, and to explore the value eDNA holds for wetland biomonitoring. The first analysis (Chapter 2) delved into the past (post-European settlement; 1840s), the present (2023), and the future (2073) of Opuatia Wetland (Waikato, Aotearoa New Zealand) through a series of interviews with three individuals who whakapapa to (are connected with) Opuatia Wetland and its surroundings. I found that Opuatia Wetland once flourished with native biodiversity, and kai (food) was readily available. However, land confiscation by European settlers marked the downfall of this once productive and connected catchment such that it is presently in a fairly degraded state, dominated by exotic species, with Māori feeling disconnected from their whenua (land). Considering the future, the interviewees envisioned a revived abundance of native species and desire for restoration efforts to be facilitated by both mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) and science. The second analysis (Chapter 3) examined a publicly available eDNA database to retrieve data from 26 wetland sites across Aotearoa New Zealand to understand taxonomic diversity patterns. Here, I showed that DNA sequence composition varied across the motu (country), illustrating that varying environmental conditions among wetland types influences biodiversity. Notably, most sites were dominated by >50% exotic species. These findings highlight the value of publicly shared data for generating new insights, and the need for resource allocations to tackle the persistence of exotic species in wetland ecosystems. The third analysis (Chapter 4) focused on analysing biodiversity dynamics at a single wetland and tested various eDNA sampling techniques. I sampled four spatially distant sites across Opuatia Wetland at three time points during an austral spring and simultaneously obtained data from conventional taxonomic surveys, tested three different filter sizes, and assessed DNA degradation rates using foreign DNA. I found significant differences in biodiversity across time and space, and when using different eDNA collection filters. Foreign DNA persisted for up to one week post-release within a 10 m radius, and combining conventional and eDNA methods provided a more comprehensive overview of biodiversity patterns. These findings collectively showcased key changes in biodiversity, even over short spatial and temporal scales, and identified parameters to consider for wetland biodiversity monitoring and associated data interpretation. It is only a matter of time until the impacts of climate change and invasive species take firmer hold of Aotearoa New Zealand's distinctive and fragile environment. Undoubtedly, eDNA can be part of the solution to mitigate these challenges, owing to its versatility across ecosystem types, capacity to extend to various substrates, and accessibility for researchers and citizen scientists alike. As eDNA methods continue to improve and become integrated into ongoing biomonitoring schemes, building equitable and empowering relationships between Māori and researchers/government bodies will best ensure that Aotearoa New Zealand repo and other environments are maintained and conserved for future generations.
Type of thesis
The University of Waikato
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