Detecting marine pests using environmental DNA and biophysical models.
The spread of marine pests is occurring at record rates due to globalisation and increasing trade. Environmental DNA (eDNA) is an emerging tool for pest surveillance, allowing for the detection of genetic material shed by organisms into the environment. However, factors influencing the spatial and temporal detection limits of eDNA in marine environments are poorly understood. In this study we use eDNA assays to assess the invasive ranges of two marine pests in south-eastern Australia, the kelp Undaria pinnatifida and the seastar Asterias amurensis. We explored the temporal and spatial detection limits of eDNA under different oceanographic conditions by combining estimates of eDNA decay with biophysical modelling. Positive eDNA detections at several new locations indicate the invasive range of both pest species is likely to be wider than currently assumed. Environmental DNA decay rates were similar for both species, with a decay rate constant of 0.035 h-1 for U. pinnatifida, and a decay rate constant of 0.041 h-1 for A. amurensis, resulting in a 57-73% decrease in eDNA concentrations in the first 24 h and decaying beyond the limits of detection after 3-4 days. Biophysical models informed by eDNA decay profiles indicate passive transport of eDNA up to a maximum of 10 to 20 km from its source, with a ~90-95% reduction in eDNA concentration within 1-3 km from the source, depending on local oceanography. These models suggest eDNA signals are likely to be highly localised, even in complex marine environments. This was confirmed with spatially replicated eDNA sampling around an established U. pinnatifida population indicating detection limits of ~750 m from the source. This study highlights the value of eDNA methods for marine pest surveillance and provides a much-needed description of the spatio-temporal detection limits of eDNA under different oceanographic conditions.