There’s nothing quite like catching sight of a wild echidna meandering in the bush. However, getting a glimpse of them isn’t easy; echidnas are notoriously shy and difficult to see in the wild.
Their aloofness means that despite the fact they’re found across the country, there are only two-well studied populations of wild echidnas in Australia – in parts of Tasmania and on Kangaroo Island. Importantly, only on Kangaroo Island do we have enough information about the echidnas, which has shown that they’re endangered.
To understand how echidnas are faring elsewhere in Australia we need a lot more data.
Researchers from Frank Grutzner’s study group at the University of Adelaide, South Australia, are looking to change that, and they need your help. Through their citizen science project EchidnaCSI, they’re seeking to learn where echidnas are, what they’re doing and if they’re healthy.
“In a nutshell, we call for everyone to record whenever they see an echidna,” explains Grutzner. “This involves taking a picture and entering some information about the animal and its environment.”
EchidnaCSI is the result of many years of discussions between Grutzner’s group and world-leading echidna researcher Dr Peggy Rismillier to improve knowledge of echidnas while also engaging the community on the importance of their conservation. Capping the effort, PhD students Tahlia Perry and Alan Stenhouse came together to form the EchidnaCSI team.
So far, the project, which has been running for just over three years, has seen more than 9000 participants record almost 10,000 echidna sightings across Australia.
“To our knowledge this is the largest number of echidna recordings of any single study,” Grutzner says. “It’s amazing to think that this data could not be obtained in any other way than by the community.”
Not only are researchers asking participants to keep an eye out for these creatures, they also need some DNA material, which is where the catchy “CSI” comes into the name.
However, unlike popular crime shows, the forensic evidence doesn’t come from a single hair or drop of blood: instead it comes from echidna scat.
The scat contains valuable DNA information – from the invertebrates an echidna’s eaten to the bacteria and other microbes that have populated its gut. Analysing that DNA can shed insight into the genetic composition of the echidna populations, their diet and their overall health.
“People have been very willing to collect echidna poo samples and send them to us!” Grutzner says. “In fact we received more than 400 echidna scats from all over Australia.”
The combination of reported sightings and molecular analysis provides us new information about where echidnas are found and what they eat. The approach also opens up possibilities for new project to study echidnas in specific areas, for example how they are affected by bushfires or other changes in their environment.
To get involved, head to EchidnaCSI webpage, or download the app on your tablet or phone. Then, it’s as simple as spotting one of the critters and taking a picture. If you’re game enough to collect some valuable scat, pop it in a ziplock bag, and mail it to the team at the address provided.
While adding to vital research and conservation efforts is arguably the most important aspect of the project, Grutzner says there are rewarding side-benefits.
“One of the most wonderful aspects of the project are the amazing stories, pictures and videos that people share about their echidna encounters,” he says.
“We’ve had echidnas climbing water buckets to topple over (repeatedly), echidnas in the surf, in urban backyards and under houses keeping residents awake with scratching their spines along the floorboards.”
We’re interested in knowing about other citizen science projects. If you know of, or participate in one, let us know by tagging us @cosmosmagazine on Twitter or by emailing us at [email protected]
The Royal Institution of Australia has an Education Resource based on this article. You can access it here.