The echidna expert committed to community-based research
Who Professor Frank Grutzner from EchidnaCSI Team, University of Adelaide
What Echidnas are one of Australia's most iconic species, yet fundamental questions about their biology and ecology remain unanswered. The Echidna Conservation Science Initiative (EchidnaCSI) combines innovative community-based research with molecular and ecological approaches. The project has generated unprecedented data and samples at a national level, providing new insights into echidna biology and conservation.
Finalist in the 2021 Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources Eureka Prize for Innovation in Citizen Science
What was the driving force behind launching EchidnaCSI?
EchidnaCSI brings together expertise in echidna biology, citizen science and a passion for conservation of our amazing wildlife. My work on genetics in platypuses and echidnas, which I’ve now been undertaking for nearly twenty years, has revealed molecular aspects of their biology and also established major genetic resources and their application in conservation.
Dr Peggy Rismiller, my colleague at the University of Adelaide, has studied echidnas on Kangaroo Island for over three decades, providing fundamental insights into their biology and identifying the main factors that threaten the species. For many years, Peggy and I combined our expertise in echidna ecology, genetics and community-based science to pursue collaborative work.
Importantly, PhD student Tahlia Perry (now Dr Perry) and undergraduate student Isabella Wilson then established a passionate team to design and carry out a contemporary and engaging citizen science project to enable research and conservation of echidnas Australia wide.
Can you tell us a little bit about the EchidnaCSI citizen science community and the work that they do?
EchidnaCSI invites the Australian community to record echidna sightings and provide information about echidna observations in all geo-ecological areas of Australia. A unique feature of the project is that we also encourage participants to learn to identify and collect scat (poo), which they then send to our lab. Molecular analysis of this scat provides a wealth of information about the echidna, their diet and health. Participants also often share their stories of echidna encounters, which triggers conversations about habitat, echidna biology and conservation.
What have been some of the project’s most significant outcomes to date?
Echidnas has been a remarkable success. The Australian community has recorded more than 11,000 sightings and collected more than 500 scat samples, numbers that have never been achieved before. These provide a constantly growing data and material base that supports ongoing research into fundamental questions about echidna distribution, diet and gut health, which is vital for echidna conservation. The project has also revealed that echidnas are surprisingly common in urban areas.
In addition to the scientific value, the submission of hundreds of geotagged photos and videos together with stories of echidna encounters, provide a great educational resource that we frequently use in school and community events.
In an age of the internet and social media, the reach of community-based science is unprecedented and opens opportunities to address questions that could not be tackled by individual scientists or groups of researchers.
Why do citizen scientists play such an important role in scientific research?
Community based science, or citizen science, has enormous potential in research. In an age of the internet and social media, the reach of community-based science is unprecedented and opens opportunities to address questions that could not be tackled by individual scientists or groups of researchers. Citizen scientists can also play an important role in the interpretation of data or designing new projects or approaches. Participants are often passionate ambassadors and communicators of the projects that they are involved in, which facilitates further reach and awareness of the project.
What excites you most about citizen science?
Most scientific research has become extremely specialised, often requiring years of training and experience. Despite this, most research projects have the potential to involve the community in a way that benefits the project. In addition to research benefits, a community-based approach brings together scientists and participants in a collaborative way that facilitates communication of the relevance and impact, of the research. It is very exciting and rewarding to see how researchers and the community share a passion for a particular project, and to achieve an outcome that otherwise would not be possible.
It is very exciting and rewarding to see how researchers and the community share a passion for a particular project, and to achieve an outcome that otherwise would not be possible.
What’s on the horizon for EchidnaCSI?
EchidnaCSI has an ambitious goal to provide long term data on echidna distribution Australia wide. Scat collections from all major habitats will reveal new information about the diet, health, reproduction and genetic diversity of echidnas in different parts of Australia. There are still large areas where echidna sightings are rare and, in the future, we are keen to reach out to rural, remote and indigenous communities to contribute information and material on echidnas in those areas.
We will continue to develop EchidnaCSI as a platform to study how echidnas are affected by environmental change and natural disasters like floods, drought and fires, (echidnas as ‘indicators’) and how they contribute to the recovery of natural habitat (echidnas as ‘cultivators’). This information will be important for the conservation of natural habitats and echidnas into the future.
Entries to the 2022 Australian Museum Eureka Prizes are now open and close at 7.00 pm AEST Friday 6 May.