Global First: Falkland Islands eDNA Study to Uncover the Secret World of Kelp Forests

Dr Narissa Bax

A captivating glimpse into the thriving Macrocystis pyrifera, giant kelp forest near Cape Pembroke, showcasing the rich biodiversity and unique underwater seascape in the Falkland Islands © Ewan Tregarot

Falkland Islands, 23rd March, 2023 - The South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI) is thrilled to announce the launch of a groundbreaking environmental DNA (eDNA) research project to explore the biodiversity of the Falkland Islands' kelp forests. Led by SAERI scientist Dr. Narissa Bax, this initiative marks the first-ever eDNA study of kelp forests in the region and has been made possible through the support of a team of local volunteers and collaborators, funding from the Kelp Forest Foundation, and support from international partners NatureMetrics, and the University of Aberdeen.

The Falkland Islands, a remote archipelago in the South West Atlantic Ocean, are home to some of the most diverse kelp forests in the world. Kelp forests are complex marine ecosystems and their conservation is important for their ecological services, including carbon storage (blue carbon), wave attenuation, and nutrient cycling. Despite their ecological and economic importance, kelp forests around the world are facing numerous threats, including climate change and pollution. To better understand and protect these fragile ecosystems, scientists are turning to a new tool: eDNA.

eDNA is a cutting-edge technology that allows scientists to detect and identify the presence of species in their natural habitats by analysing DNA samples from the environment. These samples can include anything from water or sediment to the skin or feces of organisms. By using eDNA, scientists can study entire ecosystems without needing to capture or disturb the animals living within them.

The eDNA analysis can detect the presence of various species, including those that are difficult to observe directly. Some of the detected species maybe previously unknown in the Falkland Island kelp forests, highlighting the power of eDNA analysis to uncover hidden biodiversity.

Dr. Narissa Bax highlights the importance of the study for marine management: "This study provides a foundational baseline assessment of the biodiversity of kelp forests in the Falkland Islands that can be used to guide their conservation and management. By uncovering the secrets of these biodiverse habitats, we can better understand their importance and take informed actions to protect and conserve them."

" Pioneering studies like this in remote and logistically challenging locations, have the potential to revolutionise how we monitor and manage these vital marine ecosystems, both in the Falkland Islands and potentially across other isolated locations in the sub-Antarctic."

During Monaco Ocean Week, Samantha Deane, the Managing Director of The Kelp Forest Foundation, announced the international launch of the project and emphasised its potential impact on global kelp forest conservation. Deane said, "We are thrilled to have funded this groundbreaking study, which represents a significant milestone in our understanding of what are potentially some of the most pristine kelp forests in the world. The use of eDNA analysis allows us to gain a detailed picture of the biodiversity present in similar comparative ecosystems, which will be invaluable for future preservation efforts."

The talented Oly Dempster of Falkland Islands Film Company has created a stunning video for the global launch in Monaco that showcases both the project and the remarkable kelp forest environment in the Falkland Islands

Copyright © 2023 Falkland Islands Film Company with a special thanks to Alyssa Adler © for the captivating sealion footage, and Michel Izard © for the glimpse into the kelp forest and music © Chief Springs

By analyzing water samples collected from different kelp forests, researchers can identify which species are present in the ecosystem, as well as their relative abundance. This information can be used to assess the health of the ecosystem and identify areas that may require additional protection.

Dr. Paul Brickle, Director of SAERI, remarked on the eDNA study: "The research exemplifies the innovative approach we strive for at SAERI. The project also highlights the power of collaboration among local volunteers, international partners, and our dedicated scientists."

This research not only complements ongoing collaborative efforts, but also enhances the extensive work conducted by the Shallow Marine Surveys Group (SMSG) since 2006. With dedicated dive enthusiasts and local volunteers, SMSG has persistently gathered invaluable data on Falklands kelp forests to support students and scientists, fostering a synergistic approach to preserving these crucial ecosystems.

Dr. Jesse van der Grient, a senior quantitative marine ecologist at SAERI stated, "Collaborating on this eDNA study in the Falkland Islands is a crucial milestone in understanding kelp forest ecosystems. Uncovering hidden biodiversity helps drive effective conservation and sustainable management, making this project truly impactful."

Rhian Taylor, a PhD student affiliated with SAERI and the University of Aberdeen, emphasises, "it is vital to understand the zooplankton biodiversity within kelp habitats to evaluate their role within the wider ecosystem of the Falkland Islands, and this eDNA study plays a key role in that understanding."

The study could also reveal some concerning trends, such as the presence of invasive species in water samples. Invasive species can have a large impact on native ecosystems, outcompeting native and endemic species and disrupting the ecological balance. The potential for invasive species emphasises the importance of ongoing monitoring and management of the kelp forests in the Falkland Islands.

Dr. Kara Layton, at the School of Biological Sciences, University of Aberdeen, remarks, "The eDNA approach offers a powerful tool for monitoring biodiversity in critical habitats for a range of marine species, and understanding their biodiversity is crucial for effective conservation efforts".

Dr. Samantha Howlett, the Business Development Manager for Conservation at NatureMetrics, "One of the key aspects of this study is that we have so few pristine kelp areas left and as we restore habitats, we have no idea of what ‘good’ looks like. These habitats will provide a benchmark for many restoration efforts around the world."

 "We are proud to support this study and look forward to seeing its results inform future initiatives around the world."

The vital contributions of community members have played an instrumental role and numerous local volunteers and collaborators generously donated their time and expertise to support this essential research.

 Dan Sadd, a volunteer and fisheries and conservation scientist, expressed his enthusiasm for the project, stating, "As a scientist who has devoted my career to fisheries and conservation, I am thrilled to be a part of this innovative eDNA study. This research has the potential to revolutionise our understanding of the Falkland Islands' unique kelp forests and inform sustainable fisheries management. It's a rewarding experience to contribute my expertise to a project with such far-reaching implications for the conservation of these vital ecosystems."

Lily Copping, an environmental policy specialist and volunteer, shared her thoughts: "As someone who works in environmental policy, I am keenly aware of the importance of sound scientific research in shaping effective conservation strategies. Being involved in this groundbreaking eDNA study has been a unique opportunity to witness firsthand the dedication and passion of the entire team working on this project. I am excited to see how our findings will inform policy decisions and contribute to the long-term protection of the Falkland Islands' kelp forests."

Rebecca Nicholls, a fisheries scientist and local volunteer, shared her thoughts on participating in the eDNA study: "Participating in eDNA research is always an interesting experience for me as a fisheries scientist. The eDNA analysis will provide invaluable insights into the biodiversity of our kelp forests, helping us to better understand the complex relationships between different species and the ecosystems they inhabit within our waters. I am looking forward to seeing how our findings can help inform sustainable fisheries management and contribute to the conservation of these crucial marine habitats."

Robert Kelly, a camera and drone technician volunteering in the project, reflected on his involvement: "This has been a fantastic opportunity for me to apply my skills as a camera and drone technician. By capturing stunning visuals of the kelp forests and the research process, we can raise awareness about the importance of these ecosystems and inspire others to join the fight to protect and preserve them. It's been a privilege to contribute to a project with such a profound impact on the conservation of the Falkland Islands' unique kelp forests."

Katy Ross, a SAERI PhD student and kelp forest snorkeler, remarks: "The kelp forests of the Falklands hold such incredible beauty, often hidden below the surface. The eDNA study will help reveal more about these enchanting underwater seascapes, helping us to appreciate and protect them into the future."

"It's been a privilege to be part of this special eDNA project," said Tim Mean, a local school teacher. "As we uncover hidden biodiversity in the local kelp forests, I can't wait to share the findings with my students, inspiring them to value and protect these vital ecosystems."

 The pioneering application of eDNA research in the Falkland Islands demonstrates the critical role that science plays in addressing real-world challenges, even in the most remote and demanding environments. eDNA research is useful in identifying areas that need to be protected and in guiding conservation management decisions because it is non-invasive and relatively inexpensive.

In the Falkland Islands, eDNA research could help to establish new protective legislation, such as the proposed Marine Managed Areas (MMAs), by revealing the hidden wonders of kelp forests and emphasising the importance of protecting these fragile ecosystems. Ultimately, these efforts will provide critical insights for conservation management decisions and aid in the preservation of these invaluable ecosystems for future generations.

Contact: +500 27374, email: 

Information released by:

The South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute, Falkland Islands

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