Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Calling citizen scientists: more data needed to protect echidnas

These masters of disguise are some of the world’s oldest surviving mammals, but they are threatened by habitat loss, traffic and feral cats – and they need our help

Wed 21 Feb 2018 17.00 GMT Last modified on Wed 21 Feb 2018 17.02 GMT

They may be one of the world’s oldest surviving mammals – around for at least 25m years – but scientists don’t know much about echidnas. Now researchers believe the remaining Australian population may be threatened and they need citizen scientists’ help to save them. 

The short-beaked echidna is found only in Australia and Papua New Guinea. In 2015 the Kangaroo Island echidna, a once significant subspecies, was listed as endangered. While the remaining population is listed as “least concern”, researchers question the listing. As Tahlia Perry, a PhD researcher at the University of Adelaide’s Grutzner Lab, which is studying the molecular biology of echidnas, says: “When you don’t have exact numbers, it’s really hard to give something a listing.”

In September 2017, the lab, in association with the CSIRO’s Atlas of Living Australia, launched the free echidna CSI app to encourage Australians to photograph wild echidnas and collect their scat, or droppings. “What we are hoping to find out is [whether there are] other pockets of populations around the rest of the country that are in the same sort of threat level [as the Kangaroo Island species] because they face the exact same threats,” says Perry.

The main threats to echidnas are land clearing and habitat loss. This was demonstrated on Kangaroo Island when the population shrank as development increased. Echidnas can travel great distances – often several kilometres in a day – they have very large home ranges and so land clearing and rapid developments can cause problems in their ability to travel by removing viable habitat, says Perry. Other major threats include traffic, feral cats and potentially the rapidly changing climate.

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