On this page you can find answers to common questions about the EchidnaCSI project.
Who are we?
We are researchers at the University of Adelaide. For the past ten years we have been studying the molecular biology of monotremes (both echidna and platypus). Being the world’s oldest mammals they are extremely fascinating and we have discovered some incredible surprises about their biology (head to the Fun Facts page to see what they are). Now we are using our knowledge and molecular tools to help with echidna conservation- but we need your help! If you’d like to know more about our lab and our research then have a look around the rest of this website.
What is citizen science?
If you’ve never heard this term before, it is simply where the general public collects or analyses data for projects typically organised by scientists/researchers. We know many people who are extremely passionate about nature and conservation and want to help whenever they can. We also know that you don’t have to be a ‘scientist’ to do science. What better way to celebrate this than by involving you in projects that will actually contribute to science? Not only does it mean we can collect and analyse large quantities of data relatively quickly, but we can share the journey and outcomes with people who are excited to contribute and learn. There are thousands of citizen science projects on all kinds of cool things. If this interests you then you should head to Atlas of Living Australia or Zooniverse to browse more fun projects.
Are echidnas endangered?
There are only two well-studied populations of echidnas in Australia; these are in Tasmania and Kangaroo Island. Although the Tasmanian population is quite abundant, the Kangaroo Island population is now listed as ‘endangered’. These echidnas are under threat by habitat destruction, roadkill and feral animals such as cats. We currently have no data on echidnas around the rest of Australia and that is why this project is so important. The same threats that are in Kangaroo Island exist in mainland Australia and so it is likely echidna numbers are declining throughout the entire country. We need to identify any other pockets in Australia where echidnas may be under threat before we can take any actions to help their conservation.
Why ‘CSI’ in the name?
CSI stands for 'Conservation Science Initiative' as we ultimately want to help conserve these amazing animals. But we purposefully named it 'CSI' to highlight the forensic aspect of this project. From popular crime shows like CSI, we know that scientists can get a lot of forensic evidence (like DNA) from something as small as one human hair or a drop of blood, to help solve a crime. Our project is a little like that, where we can get a lot of evidence about echidnas from DNA and hormones that we find in their scats. In forensics, the molecules from hair and blood are broken and degraded and there's not much of them in the sample. This is the same for echidna scats and so we use similar techniques to get as much good quality data from them as possible. With this forensic approach we hope to understand more about wild echidna populations from clues left behind in their poo.
What can you get out of scats?
Firstly, we can get DNA from the echidna itself (a). As the scat goes through the intestine and colon it actually accumulates cells from those organs. We can then extract the DNA from those cells that can be found throughout the scat. Echidna scats are very dry and actually contain a reasonable amount of leaf litter and small sticks. This can be from the echidna sucking up these objects whilst foraging for ants and termites, or even from the scat picking these up from it's environment. By taking the DNA from those plants (b) we can get a better idea of what sort of environment that echidna is living or foraging in. The easiest things to spot in echidna scats are the ants and termites it's been eating - they will eat thousands a day. The DNA from the echidnas' food (c) can tell us the insect species they are eating, which could be very useful in identifying the ant and termite species that inhabit particular areas. Hormones that travel through the echidnas body also get excreted through their scats. Through hormones such as cortisol, we can determine if an echidna is stressed (d). While testing hormones such as progesterone or testosterone, we can determine if an echidna is sexually active or even pregnant (e).