Barcoding Wildlife

by Barney Moorhouse | October 10, 2014

In the near future people will be able to use their cellphones as part of a process to identify fish, wildlife, insects, plants and fungi.

It’s an offshoot of an effort which has had scientists busy barcoding life forms for the past 11 years. The technique uses a fragment of the life form’s DNA to create a barcode, much like those used on store products. With a reader, an animal or plant could be identified by something as small as a hair or scale.

“Close to 3,000 species of mammals are catalogued and I am sure that encompasses pretty much all common fur and game species,” said Biodiversity Institute of Ontario (BIO) Director of Education and Outreach, Dr. Dirk Steinke. BIO is located at the University of Guelph. Steinke says it is the largest institute of its kind dedicated to DNA barcoding.

The world-wide barcoding community has, thus far, assembled some 3.4 million DNA barcodes for about 412,000 species of animals, plants, and fungi for this bio-surveillance project, and has stored them in BOLD (, a barcode database, where anyone can identify an unknown specimen.

“About 11,000 of the 30,000 fish species world-wide have been assigned a barcode,” said Steinke. Among those are most North American freshwater and marine species and most of the commercially harvested species in the world.”

The technology is about to be made available to the general public on a limited basis.

“We are about to release a kit that goes with an app, [available at] People can currently order trial kits,” said Steinke.
He said the kit consists of a cell phone app and 4 tubes containing liquid. The kit works in the following way: when a person finds a sample needing identification, they take a photo of it and a GPS reading of the location. The sample is then placed in the tube; the phone is used to read the barcode on the tube; and the sample is sent to the lab. When it has been identified, the lab will send your phone the result.

“Outdoors folk could confirm species ID if they only find parts of animals (scales, hair, etc.),” he added.


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