Echidna poo isn’t something you’d ordinarily scoop up and pop in the post, but researchers want you to do just that.
As part of a study to find out how many echidnas are left in Australia and where they are living, University of Adelaide researchers are asking Australians, particularly those who live in the bush, to keep an eye out for the spiny marsupials—and their droppings.
They want citizen scientists to collect echidna poo, or scats, and take photographs wherever echidnas or scats are seen.
The Echidna Conservation Science Initiative, or EchidnaCSI, researchers have developed a mobile phone app so that the photos and location can be instantly uploaded with details of the environment, state, size and activity of the echidna.
The researchers also want people to use the app to log the poo, then bag and post it to them for molecular analysis.
“Echidnas, and their fellow monotreme the platypus, are the oldest surviving mammals,” Professor Frank Grutzner said. “But surprisingly we know very little about these iconic animals that feature on our coins.
“Echidnas occupy all sorts of environments across Australia and have successfully adapted to habitats ranging from deserts, rainforests to alpine snow regions.
“Although they are hard to find and study in the wild, they pop up in people’s backyards frequently and you see them when least expected. That’s why we need as many people as possible—to let us know where they are and what they are doing. In addition, we want people to learn how to spot echidna scats and send them to us.”
Echidna poo contains echidna DNA and hormones from the cells lining the intestine, as well as DNA from the food they eat.
“By analysing DNA and hormones, we will be able to find out a lot more about the echidna, for example what it’s eating, and the sort of environment it’s living in, if it is a male or female, if they are breeding or being stressed,” said Tahlia Perry, a PhD student in the University’s School of Biological Sciences.
“In this project, we combine field observation with molecular work on their hair, scats and even dead animals and that’s why we called it EchidnaCSI.”
Ms Perry will use the data and material collected through the EchidnaCSI project to develop molecular tools to better understand the animals and help echidna conservation.
Echidnas are found throughout Australia but the only populations that have been studied in more detail are in Tasmania, and on Kangaroo Island, where echidna numbers have dropped so that they are now listed as endangered.
Environmental physiologist and University of Adelaide Visiting Research Fellow Dr Peggy Rismiller, from the Pelican Lagoon Research and Wildlife Centre on Kangaroo Island, has been working for almost 30 years on echidna biology and conservation.
“The Kangaroo Island echidnas are under threat from habitat changes, roadkill and feral animals and these same threats exist on the mainland,” Dr Rismiller said. “We have documented that numbers are declining in many parts of Australia and we need more information—that’s why this project is so important.”