Have you ever looked at a piece of meat and had trouble identifying what kind of meat it was? Well, that was the same issue that some scientists were having while trying to identify the meat being traded in Africa.
The consumption of bushmeat or wild African animals is one of the major causes for the decreasing numbers of large, African mammals, like primates, and in order to protect these mammals, scientists have to look at how they are being consumed and which ones are being consumed. Thus, they analyze the bushmeat trade in markets.
This is a method that is commonly used because it is considered to be faster, more cost-effective, and more achievable than estimating the decline or abundance of species in hunted areas.
Thus, researchers often conduct market surveys by asking vendors about the meat that they are selling and by identifying the meats that are being traded, by sight. However, this method can pose many problems because it is often difficult to identify the species of meat when the meat is butchered and/or smoked. Also, the vendors can be reluctant to share information about their involvement in bushmeat trade or deliberately mislead the researchers in order to protect themselves.
Consequently, certain scientists, Minhós et al., came up with an alternative method of identifying bushmeat—DNA barcoding. DNA barcoding is a method where scientists can use DNA sequences of the meats, such as the sequences of mitochondrial DNA, to identify the species of the meat.
In order to assess the effectiveness of DNA barcoding, the team of scientists looked at two markets in Bissau, the capital city of Guinea-Bissau, and identified the meat being traded by surveying the market vendors and by using DNA barcoding.
After comparing the results of the two methods of identifying meat, the scientists found DNA barcoding to be an effective way of correctly estimating the species-specific frequencies of trade. DNA barcoding found that the species C. sabaeus was the most hunted primate species while the information based on the surveys of vendors incorrectly suggested that C. campbelli was the most hunted species. In fact, the vendors were only able to identify C. sabaeus four times.
The vendors also had difficulties in distinguishing primate species that have similar body shapes and sizes when smoked.
Correctly identifying the species that are being frequently traded at markets is important because scientists need to know which species are being most hunted so that they can work towards protecting those species. Furthermore, current data about the species being consumed does not take into account the animals that are shot and killed but never brought for trading in the markets. Thus, certain animals may be being hunted more frequently than what researchers predict, further increasing their need for conservation efforts.
DNA barcoding can help scientists in accurately assessing the species being traded so that they can figure out which species truly need to be protected. DNA barcoding can also help enforce laws about protected species by detecting the illegal trading of protected species and by verifying the information that vendors and meat transporters provide about the kind of meat that they handle.
Although there are many advantages to using DNA barcoding, it is not very commonly used due to monetary limitations and the lack of information about the primate DNA sequences that scientists need to use DNA barcoding. Further studies about and improvements to the quality of such information would allow the use of DNA barcoding to become more widespread.
Minhós, T., Wallace, E., Ferreira da Silva, M. J., Sá, R. M., Carmo, M., Barata A., & Bruford, M. (2013). DNA identification of primate bushmeat from urban markets in Guinea-Bissau and its implications for conservation. Biological Conservation, 167, 43-49.
Modern, April Choi