Charles Xu

Talking to local high school students in Yunnan about my research and the importance of wildlife conservation.

Talking to local high school students in Yunnan about my research and the importance of wildlife conservation.


Hey! My name is Charles Xu (徐聪) (@charlescongxu) and I'm a Ph.D. student in the Redpath Museum and the Department of Biology at McGill University. I am interested in developing and applying genetic tools towards addressing conservation problems.

I've had the opportunity and privilege to be able to study in universities around the world where I have worked on many different conservation-related research projects. While I was studying environmental sciences at the University of Notre Dame, I helped to develop environmental DNA methods to monitor fish species in the Great Lakes and to detect the invasive Asian carp in the Mississippi River. I also discovered that spider webs can be a useful, non-invasive source of DNA that can be used to identify the species of spider that made the web and also their potential insect prey.


Tiger bone wine

One day while I was doing field work in China, I stumbled upon a large glass jar of alcohol containing some unknown geckos being sold at a restaurant. Steeped alcohol is a form of Traditional Chinese Medicine where various herbs and animals are steeped in high-proof grain liquor and then either applied externally or consumed. The geckos were difficult to identify based on morphology but they looked like they could have been a protected species. Since genetic samples are often preserved in ethanol, I figured that it should be relatively easy to extract and sequence DNA of those animals directly from the alcohol.


Jar of steeped alcohol containing various animal species

In collaboration with the Wildlife Forensics Center of the Yunnan Endangered Species Commission, the South China DNA Barcoding Institute at the Kunming Institute of Zoology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Granby Zoo in Granby, Quebec, I am now working on developing a genetic method to identify species used to produce steeped alcohol. Many of these species are endangered and protected such as tigers and bears so we urgently need a forensic way to know when something is illegal or not, especially given the recent news of China lifting the tiger and rhino ban and the World Health Organization legitimizing Traditional Chinese Medicine.

If you are interested, you can find out more about me and my work at or follow me on Twitter @CharlesCongXu or contact me at if you are interested in collaborating in any way!  

By Charles Xu