Elusive tiger salamanders live in Edmonton-area wetlands — and environmental DNA proves it

Crime-fighting C.S.I.-type technology is being applied to Edmonton area wetlands and turning up some surprising results including tiger salamanders.

'There could be 1,000 of them right in front of you and you'd never hear them'

A rare photo of a tiger salamander in Alberta. (Suppled by Alyssa Metro)

Crime-fighting C.S.I.-type technology is being applied to wetlands in the Edmonton area, and turning up some surprising results.

In September, scientists with the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI) and InnoTech Alberta identified evidence of tiger salamanders in two wetlands.

Sydney Toni, a knowledge translations specialist with ABMI, says scientists know that boreal chorus frogs, wood frogs and tiger salamanders have been visiting wetlands in the Edmonton area.

The proof? Environmental DNA — or eDNA — in water samples.

"All organisms shed DNA, be it hairs or tissue, and you can collect that in that environmental sample and analyze it to see what's there," Toni says.

ABMI knowledge translations specialist Sydney Toni tagging along on a recent demonstration of eDNA wetland sample gathering. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

Native to North America, tiger salamanders spend most of their time living in underground burrows.

They don't have a call, like a frog, that would register on audio monitoring equipment.

That makes them particularly difficult to detect, says Brian Eaton, manager of the environmental impacts at InnoTech Alberta.

"There could be 1,000 of them right in front of you and you'd never hear them, they don't really make noises," Eaton says.

He says eDNA technology has been around for a couple of decades but is only now starting to be used in large-scale monitoring programs like this year-long study in the Edmonton area.

"I love amphibians, I love this kind of work, so the whole eDNA thing and the ability it gives us to detect and understand how these populations are changing is a wonderful innovation," says Eaton.

A wood frog in the Garner Orchid Fen Natural Area of Lac La Biche County. (Supplied by Flavia Papini)

The technology has also been used in Alberta fish and small mammal populations, like otters and minks. 

Eaton says practical applications include the detection of rare or endangered, as well as invasive species.

Amphibians around the world are on the decline due to habitat loss, contaminants, disease, and climate change. 

There are 10 species of amphibians in Alberta and about half of them can be found in the Edmonton area. 

'Tiger salamanders are cool'

2 years ago
Duration 2:00
Tag along with scientists from the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI) and InnoTech Alberta as they demonstrate the eDNA gathering technique they're using to find evidence of amphibians, like tiger salamanders, in Edmonton-area wetlands.

You can see more about nature, science and wetlands this Saturday at 10 a.m., Sunday at noon and 11 a.m. Monday on CBC TV and CBC Gem on Our Edmonton.

Amanda Schmidt, an aquatic field coordinator with ABMI, sucks up water samples using a hose attached to a long pole and a pump. The water passes through two sets of filters.

"You don't actually see any of the things that you're looking for at that time," Schmidt says.

It's only after the filters are sent back to the lab and are run through molecular analysis that eDNA traces of elusive creatures like the tiger salamander can be detected. 

"This work is really important because it helps us to learn what is out in our environment and to get a good catalog of the species that are there, especially with species that you can't catch easily."

ABMI aquatic field coordinator Amanda Schmidt demonstrates the technique of collecting an eDNA sample. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)


Adrienne Lamb


Adrienne Lamb is the host and producer of Our Edmonton featured weekly on CBC TV. She served for several years as CBC Radio's national arts reporter in Edmonton. Prior to moving to Alberta, Adrienne worked at CBC in Ontario and New Brunswick. Adrienne is a graduate of Western University with a degree in English and Anthropology and a Masters in Journalism.