Send in your scat samples!

It’s the app that could save a species.

While the echidna is an Australian icon, but scientists have little information about their distribution nationwide. Populations may be declining, but scientists can only speculate as to how much and why.

As part of an initiative to fill these gaps, researchers from the University of Adelaide have developed an app which Australians can use to report echidna sightings.

Asking members of the public to contribute data is not a new idea in scientific circles, but social media has been a game changer, says Professor Grutzner. The speed and immediacy which an app offers means citizen scientists can contribute important information in a matter of moments. The chancy nature of echidna sightings means it’s hard for scientists to pin populations down, but members of the public often stumble upon the animals.

“It is amazing that there’s so many regions from Australia where we have virtually no information about how many echidas there are,” says Professor Frank Grutzner who is heading up the project.

It is amazing that there’s so many regions from Australia where we have virtually no information about how many echidas there are.

Professor Frank Grutzner

“It’s basically done in seconds, they can collect data, valuable information in seconds,” he said.

The researchers hope to use the date as a basis for further scientific research into the genetics of monotremes, which Professor Grutzner hopes will also benefit conservation efforts.

Devoted Citizen Scientists can go one step further to help. The researchers are also keen to obtain samples of Echidna droppings for genetic studies.

As native species are protected, the material could not require members of the public to handle the animals.

Scat samples were the perfect solution, allowing members of the public to contribute without touching or handling the protected species.

Echidna droppings have an unusual appearance, making them easy to pick from a crowd, says Professor Grutzner.

“You can identify echidna poo relatively easily, because of all the insects, ants and termites, skeletons,” he said.

One spiny story

Nada Travica has been one of the most active Citizen Scientists involved in the project. Living on a property between Sutton and Gundaroo, she keeps an eye out for echidnas and frequently reports sightings to the team.

After attending NSW National Parks Workshop called ‘Who’s Living on my Land’, she borrowed two wildlife surveillance cameras and set them up to see what she could track.

While trawling through the Atlas of Living Australia she came across the Echidna CSI initiative. After getting in touch with Professor Grutzner, Ms Travica has become one of the project’s most engaged participants, sending in pictures of echidnas on her property of over 100 acres.

“I’ve always had an interest in nature and wildlife and echidnas are such an unique creature in the world, being a monotreme,” Ms Travica said.

“They’re just intriguing little creatures, they’re harmless and just quite interesting.”

“It’s a tiny little bit of my time, but it seems to be a very helpful thing.”

Helping with the EchidnaCSI project fits neatly within her whole ethos of caring for the environment. She has become so involved in the project that she has bought her own wildlife surveillance camera, and even begun to recognise specific echidnas on her property, including a particularly distinctive one missing two spines. 

Surprising habits have been revealed to her, recently she was astonished to see an echidna crawl under a banksia and fall sleep.

“I’ve always had an interest in nature and wildlife and echidnas are such an unique creature in the world, being a monotreme,” she said.

She has always kept an eye to the changing environment around her, having lived on the property since 2004. A lover of nature, she has completed regeneration work on her farm to foster an environment in which wildlife can thrive. However small her property might be in the big picture, she believes that every little bit contributes to the greater whole.

“If I’ve got an opportunity to create a landscape that is more welcoming for nature and the natural environment, all the better,” Ms Travica said.

“Nature’s always interesting, because we’re a part of nature, and not something separate from it.”

A scientist’s story

Professor Grutzner has been fascinated by monotremes since he first moved to Australia in 2001.

Ultimately, he is hoping to attract funding to sequence the genome of platypus. 

The oldest surviving branch of the mammal class, the most recent common ancestor between monotremes and humans lived over 180 million years ago. Comparing the genome of a platypus and a human could give scientists invaluable insight into genetic changes over that period, he says.

“Because of their unique position [among] mammals... we’ve been able to get some amazing insights into the evolution of the…genome,” Professor Grutzner said.

“We’re always hoping that we could apply some of the research that we’re doing into the conservation of these amazing animals.” 

“This project is I think realising that.”

  • The Echidna CSI app, has been developed by Alan Stenhouse, PhD candidate in the School of Biological Sciences. It can be found on the App Store and on Google Play.