“Shrimps” discovered in the nation’s forests

Net set up in woodland to collect samples
Photo credit: Nadia Barsoum / Forest Research

"Shrimps” discovered in the nation’s forests

eDNA metabarcoding analysis will plot ecosystem recovery as part of new biodiversity plan

Forestry England has revealed some amazing results from DNA metabarcoding analysis in a recent collaboration with Forest Research part-funded by Defra and delivered by NatureMetrics. The analysis was applied to soil samples (eDNA) as well as forest canopy and subcanopy arthropod samples from the nation’s forests in North Yorkshire.

Compared to traditional wildlife surveys, the results are vast, quick and low-cost, considering the species information returned.

The soil samples detected more than 2,400 fungal sequences (of which 450 could be matched with a high degree of confidence to reference library sequences at the species level) and more than 200 species of invertebrates including the shrimp-like copepod Bryocamptus pygmaeus. The traps in the canopies and in shrub layers identified over 300 different arthropods.

Forestry England believe they are starting an exciting programme of free data-sharing. Academics and researchers will be able to help everyone understand the detailed DNA samples from some conservation projects in the nation’s forests and how they change as the climate changes and Forestry England improve their resilient forest management techniques.

Dr Andrew Stringer, Head of Environment for Forestry England explained:

“It's mind-blowing. The volume of data means we are no longer looking at a handful of "indicator species", such as birds and butterflies, to understand woodland biodiversity, but whole communities. This means we could begin to robustly monitor entire woodland ecosystems. It feels a bit like looking through a microscope for the first time to a whole new world of detail.

“We know that at some point, 56 per cent of England’s priority species have been found in the nation’s forests. But we can’t say for sure if those records are still valid and the species are still there. Monitoring is critical but whole-community and direct-species monitoring has historically been too expensive. Now, emerging DNA metabarcoding technologies combined with eDNA sampling mean we can rapidly assess levels of biodiversity and measure trends.

“The fact we have found shrimp-like invertebrates in wet woodlands is not that surprising when you stop and think about it, but it demonstrates the power and possibilities of eDNA sampling and metabarcoding. We care for more land and trees than any other organisation in England and know we have an exceptional responsibility for biodiversity conservation which is a core part of what we do. It feels like we are at the start of a new era, starting to manage for the whole woodland environment rather than a narrow, few species.”

Today, Forestry England has also published its commitments to protect and restore resilient biodiversity in the nation’s forests. Mostly using eDNA metabarcoding, analysis will be used to understand how areas in selected forests change in response to climate change and alternative forest management aimed at restoring functioning ecosystems.

DNA metabarcoding analysis can confidently identify species whose DNA sequences are on reference library databases such as the Barcode of Life Database (BOLD). Unidentified sequences, such as the 2,000 soil fungal sequences from soil samples, will be revealed as they become sequenced and added to DNA sequence libraries. Species identified with a high degree of confidence using DNA metabarcoding include:

From soils across all 43 forest stands sampled:

  • 454 fungal species, including arbuscular and ectomycorrhizal species, animal parasite and plant pathogen fungal species and decomposer fungal species.
  • 202 soil invertebrate species, including earthworms, nematodes, flatworms, mites, collembola, tardigrades, snails, rotifers, millipedes, centipedes, beetles and woodlice.

From canopy traps installed in 26 forest stands over the summer and early autumn months:

  • 312 canopy invertebrate species including flies, bees, wasps, moths and a wide range of beetle species with very different feeding habits (seed feeders, leaf rollers, bark beetles, fungus-feeding beetles.)

From malaise traps installed in 34 forest stands:

  • 518 arthropods in the sub-canopy amongst the ground vegetation and shrub layers.

In Forestry England’s first major biodiversity corporate partnership, Forest Holidays have recently contributed £250,000 towards a pioneering new conservation project that will be underpinned by eDNA analysis to understand how the habitat changes over time. More will be announced in 2023.

Notes to Editor

1.    A copy of Forestry England’s biodiversity plan can be downloaded from the web site.

2.    There are 2 main ways to use DNA to identify species. DNA barcoding is widely used to definitely identify a single species based on DNA extracted either directly from the organism itself, or from environmental DNA such as hair, droppings and other cellular debris left in the environment. DNA metabarcoding is used to identify multiple species present in a single sample from traps, soil or air quickly and it costs much less. For more information, download this (PDF) Forest Research research note.

eDNA metabarcoding analysis will become a major tool for Forestry England to measure how selected places recover in the nation’s forests as part of their biodiversity action plan. All the DNA data collected will be made available online, for free, so researchers and academics can analyse the information as it grows.

Forest Research collected 2 bulked soil samples in each of 43 forest stands; used ‘Lindgren’ canopy traps installed in 26 forest stands over the summer and early autumn months and malaise traps were also set up in 34 forest stands to capture arthropods of the sub-canopy. The full North Yorkshire DNA data will be available in 2023 after scientific papers have been published.

3.    Forestry England manages and cares for the nation’s 1,500 woods and forests, with over 363 million visits per year. As England’s largest land manager, we shape landscapes and enhance forests for people to enjoy, wildlife to flourish and businesses to grow. We are continuing the work we have already started to make the nation’s forests resilient to climate change and by 2026 we will:   

  • create at least 6,000 more hectares where we integrate wilding activities in our productive forests. 
  • increase the diversity of visitors to the nation’s forests and have one million hours of high-quality volunteer time given to the nation’s forests 
  • plant at least 2,000 hectares of new, high quality, predominantly broadleaf woodlands 

    For more information visit forestryengland.uk. Forestry England is an agency of the Forestry Commission.
  1. Forest Research is Great Britain’s principal organisation for forestry and tree-related research and is internationally renowned for the provision of evidence and scientific services in support of sustainable forestry. www.forestresearch.gov.uk @Forest_
  2. Defra’s Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment (NCEA) is a science innovation and transformation programme, which spans across land and water environments. It has been set up to collect data on the extent, condition and change over time of England’s ecosystems and natural capital, and the benefits to society.
  3. Forest Holidays offers short breaks in 11 forest locations across the UK, helping people experience and reconnect with nature, each other, and rural communities. 80% of the land Forest Holidays occupies is for conservation; protecting and enhancing habitats to support native species and increase biodiversity.

    Forest Holidays long-standing partnership with Forestry England, Natural Resources Wales and Forestry & Land Scotland supports the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of Great Britain’s forests, as well as providing a sustainable income stream which helps them to manage forests to the highest standards on behalf of us all.
  4. The UK government publishes: Habitats and species of principal importance in England. An assessment of all records found that 56 percent of the species listed at the time had been found in the nation’s forests managed by Forestry England.

Media contact:

e: media@forestryengland.uk , m: 07771 971813