Environmental DNA is effective in detecting the federally threatened Louisiana Pinesnake (Pituophis ruthveni)

Aron D. Katz, Lynsey R. Harper, Elizabeth C. Sternhagen, Sarah E. Pearce, Christopher A. Melder, Jinelle H. Sperry, Mark A. Davis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Successful conservation of rare, threatened, or endangered (RTE) species is dependent upon rapid and accurate assessment of their distribution and abundance. However, assessments are challenging as RTE species typically exist as numerically small populations in often fragmented habitats and can possess complex natural histories. Environmental DNA (eDNA) analysis may provide a rapid, cost-effective means of assessing RTE species presence/absence in viable habitat patches. We evaluated the efficacy of eDNA surveillance for the Louisiana Pinesnake (Pituophis ruthveni), an elusive, semi-fossorial, nonvenomous colubroid snake endemic to Louisiana and Texas, USA, that has dramatically declined in both distribution and abundance. We developed two quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) assays that target the mitochondrial cytochrome c oxidase subunit I (COI) and mitochondrially encoded ATP synthase membrane subunit 6 (ATP6) genes. We validated each assay in silico, in vitro, and in situ, and investigated the influence of eDNA extraction method and genetic marker on assay performance. Both assays were highly sensitive and successfully detected the Louisiana Pinesnake under artificial and field conditions, including bedding samples collected from captive snake enclosures (100%), soil samples from Louisiana Pinesnake release sites (100%), and soil samples from sites where Louisiana Pinesnakes were documented via radio telemetry (45%). Although differences between genetic markers were negligible, assay performance was strongly influenced by eDNA extraction method. Informed by our results, we discuss methodological and environmental factors influencing Louisiana Pinesnake eDNA detection and quantification, broader implications for management and conservation of the Louisiana Pinesnake and other terrestrial reptiles and provide recommendations for future research. We suggest that eDNA surveys can more effectively assess Louisiana Pinesnake occupancy than conventional sampling, highlighting the need for comprehensive eDNA monitoring initiatives to better identify suitable habitat that will promote persistence of this imperiled species going forward.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)409-425
Number of pages17
JournalEnvironmental DNA
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2021


  • INHS
  • radio telemetry
  • longleaf pine forests
  • quantitative PCR
  • Endangered Species Act
  • soil
  • conservation management
  • reptile
  • eDNA
  • gopher burrows

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Genetics
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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