August 2, 2022
Image credit: Doug Gimesy
The entire continent is about to be treated like a crime scene as thousands of people across the country search for DNA from the country’s animals.
It’s all for a really large-scale study called the Great Australian Wildlife Search (GAWS), which is touted as not only the largest single biodiversity survey in the world, but the largest citizen scientist effort ever seen anywhere. And it couldn’t come soon enough, with Australia, like the rest of the world, facing an unprecedented extinction crisis. An opportunity to showcase what and where animal species reside in this vast country will help government and conservation organizations better plan the allocation of resources to help save endangered wildlife.
The research is led by the non-profit conservation organization the Odonata Foundation, in partnership with Melbourne-based biotech company EnviroDNA. Governments and philanthropists are expected to provide multi-million dollar financial support.
GAWS will use a high-tech detection method on a scale never before done to find the animal species that survive across an entire continent. And it will do that by getting as much of the country’s population on board as possible to work as citizen scientists collecting the data. It is based on a technology known as eDNA, which can search for the presence of animal species by detecting tiny DNA traces left behind, for example from hair and skin cells.
Currently, the technology works best in water and therefore the GAWS test sites will initially be adjacent to and in rivers and streams. (In 2020, human health services in Australia and elsewhere began using the same kind of technology to track the spread of COVID by looking for detectable genetic markers of the virus in wastewater.)
Whenever an animal swims or drinks in a watercourse, the tiny DNA traces that die off their bodies can be detected for up to two weeks afterward. And these can be identified by comparing them to a library of known genetic markers for different species. Even if the DNA falls into the terrestrial environment, it can be detected in a nearby body of water when transported there by runoff after rainfall.
Despite Australia being the most arid populated continent on Earth, most of our animals need water to drink from – no matter how small or hidden the source may be.
What is possible with this wildlife technology is phenomenal!”
says Odonata CEO Sam Marwood.
“It gives us a snapshot so that we can convert the information into distribution models for both wild and wild species that will be better than we had before. To know where endangered wildlife is, we can plan where our reserves are going and where we can support wildlife corridors.” The information can also be used to determine if there are important species in the wild on adjacent properties so that owners can manage their land accordingly.
The GAWS project grew out of previous work conducted using eDNA in collaboration with Melbourne-based environmental geneticist Dr. Andrew Weeks.
The first scientific articles were written about eDNA from water around 2008; Andrew began researching the technology extensively from 2012. His team first applied it in a project for Melbourne Water to identify where platypuses were located in the watershed under that state authority’s jurisdiction. The platypus is now an endangered species and because it is aquatic, it provided a perfect opportunity to apply the technology.
Andrew’s team found that using eDNA was a lot more sensitive and cost-effective than using other methods, such as traps, to identify where Victoria’s platypuses were. “We were able to show that by taking just two water samples from a site, we could detect platypus presence more than 95 percent of the time,” explains Andrew. “To do that with traditional platypus surveys, we would have to do 6-10 surveys, and they would all take an entire night.
“This way you can see how cost efficiency and the sensitivity of the technology come into play.”
From platypus to every animal that ever comes near water, use of eDNA grew in Victoria and Odonata saw the potential for wildlife monitoring. A pilot project was undertaken in 2021 with the technology being applied statewide. With the help of an army of citizen scientists, 2,000 sites were sampled at a cost of $900,000. Results are expected to be available by the end of 2022, but the project has progressed so smoothly that it is being scaled up nationally in the form of GAWS, which will launch soon and operate in every state and territory in the country.
The kind of data expected to be produced would normally take at least 15 years to collect using traditional methods at a cost likely to exceed $150 million, Andrew estimates.
For more information and to see how you can participate in the survey or donate to the project, please visit thegreataustralianwildlifesearch.org