Building Universal PCR Primers for Aquatic Ecosystem Assessments

Post provided by Vasco Elbrecht

Many things can negatively affect stream ecosystems – water abstraction, eutrophication and fine sediment influx are just a few. However, only intact freshwater ecosystems can sustainably deliver the ecosystem services – such as particle filtration, food biomass production and the supply of drinking water – that we rely on. Because of this, stream management and restoration has often been in the focus of environmental legislation world-wide. Macrozoobenthic communities are often key biological components of stream ecosystems. As many taxa within these communities are sensitive to negative stressors introduced by humans, they’re ideal for assessing the quality of water.

Unfortunately, most macrozoobenthic taxa – such as stone-, may-, and caddisflies as well as most other invertebrates – are often found in juvenile larval life stages in these ecosystems, so they’re often difficult to identify based on morphology. With the DNA based metabarcoding method though, almost all taxa in a stream can be reliably identified up to species level using a standardised gene fragment. One key component of this strategy is the development of universal markers, which allow detection of the diverse macrozoobenthic groups.

Our new R package PrimerMiner provides a framework for obtaining sequence data from available reference databases and identifying suitable primer binding sites for marker amplification. The package makes this process quicker and easier. In the following pictures, we summarise the key steps of DNA metabarcoding.

To find out more about PrimerMiner, read our Methods in Ecology and Evolution article ‘PrimerMiner: an r package for development and in silico validation of DNA metabarcoding primers’. Like all Applications articles, this paper is freely available to everyone.

Progressive Change BACIPS: Estimating the Effects of Environmental Impacts over Time

Post provided by Lauric Thiault

BACIPS (Before-After Control-Impact Paired Series) is probably the best-known and most powerful approach to detect and quantify human interventions on ecosystems. In BACIPS designs, Impact and Control sites are sampled simultaneously (or nearly so) multiple times Before and After an intervention. For each sampling survey conducted Before or After, the difference in the sampled response variable (e.g. density) is calculated. Before and After differences are then compared to provide a measure of the effect of the intervention, assuming that the magnitude of the induced change is constant through time. However, many interventions may not cause immediate, constant changes to a system.

We developed a new statistical approach – called Progressive-Change BACIPS (Before-After Control-Impact Paired-Series) – that extends and generalises the scope of BACIPS analyses to time-dependent effects. After quantifying the statistical power and accuracy of the method with simulated data sets, we used marine and terrestrial case studies to illustrate and validate their approach. We found that the Progressive-Change BACIPS works pretty well to estimate the effects of environmental impacts and the time-scales over which they operate.

The following images show the diversity of contexts in which this approach can be undertaken.

To find out more about Progressive Change BACIPS, read our Methods in Ecology and Evolution article ‘Progressive-Change BACIPS: a flexible approach for environmental impact assessment’.

Soaring with Eagles, Swimming with Sharks: Measuring Animal Behaviour with Hidden Markov Models


Around the world there are concerns over the impacts of land use change and the developments (such as wind farms). These concerns have led to the implementation of tracking studies to better understand movement patterns of animals. Such studies have provided a wealth of high-resolution data and opportunities to explore sophisticated statistical methods for analysis of animal behaviour.

We use accelerometer data from aerial (Verreaux’s eagle in South Africa) and marine (blacktip reef shark in Hawai’i) systems to demonstrate the use of hidden Markov models (HMMs) in providing quantitative measures of behaviour. HMMs work really well for analysing animal accelerometer data because they account for serial autocorrelation in data. They allow for inferences to be made about relative activity and behaviour when animals cannot be directly observed too, which is very important.

In addition to this, HMMs provide data-driven estimates of the underlying distributions of the acceleration metrics – and the probability of switching between states – possibly as a function of covariates. The framework that we provide in ‘Analysis of animal accelerometer data using hidden Markov models‘ can be applied to a wide range of activity data. It opens up exciting opportunities for understanding drivers of individual animal behaviour.

The following images provide an inside view into the ecosystems in which the Verreaux’s eagle and blacktip reef shark reside.

Soaring with Veraux’s Eagles

Swimming with Blacktip Reef Sharks

To find out more, read our Methods in Ecology and Evolution article ‘Analysis of animal accelerometer data using hidden Markov models’.