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Animal droppings key to protecting endangered species

Marcus Butler

11 November 2016: One of the less talked about elements of animal nature is the focus of two University of Canberra researchers’ efforts to protect endangered species.

Institute for Applied Ecology (IAE) scientists Dr Anna MacDonald and Professor Stephen Sarre aim to improve the way environmental DNA (eDNA) is used to identify species from small samples of DNA in animal poo.

The technique is increasingly being used in Australia and around the world and is helpful in determining whether the animal responsible for a sample was native or introduced. Dr MacDonald and Professor Sarre’s work has been published in the Molecular Ecology Resources journal.

Dr MacDonald said improving the way eDNA is used will assist in identifying and managing invasive species, particularly in areas where threatened or endangered species are preyed on.

“eDNA detection is becoming more common in wildlife studies, as it provides a means to study elusive animals without actually handling or observing them directly,” Dr MacDonald said.

“We can also use DNA to study interactions between species, for example, by detecting the remains of a threatened species in scats from an introduced predator. We have very little chance of observing a feral cat eating an eastern barred bandicoot, but we can now detect this predator-prey interaction using DNA.”

Funded by the University-based Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre (CRC), the study aims to convince policy-makers and environmental managers of the technique’s accuracy and reliability.

Dr Macdonald said the study has developed a test to detect DNA from bandicoots.

“To give us confidence in the test results we need to demonstrate that it doesn’t also mistakenly detect DNA from rodents or wallabies,” Dr MacDonald said.

The study aims to provide tools to help other researchers overcome these issues by offering a framework for developing and evaluating species-specific DNA tests with the goal of ensuring correct identification of the DNA within poo samples.

“Australians are leading research in the application of DNA detection to managing and understanding the impacts of invasive species, but it is important that we, and others worldwide, develop and adopt appropriate standards that test and measure the reliability of our work,” she said.