August 2, 2022
Image credit: Doug Jamesy
The entire continent is about to be treated as a crime scene as thousands of people across the country begin searching for DNA from the nation’s animals.
All this for a truly massive investigation called the Great Australian Wildlife Research (GAWS) which is described as not only the largest single survey of biodiversity in the world, but also the largest deployment of citizen scientists anywhere ever. Nor can it come fast enough, as Australia, like the rest of the world, faces an unprecedented extinction crisis. The opportunity to show what and where animal species are found throughout this vast country will help the government and conservation organizations better plan for allocating resources to help save threatened wildlife.
The survey is being led by the nonprofit conservation organization Odonata Foundation, which works in partnership with Melbourne-based biotechnology company EnviroDNA. It is expected to receive financial support of up to several million from governments and philanthropists.
GAWS will use a high-tech discovery method on a scale never before done to find animal species that live across an entire continent. It will do this by recruiting as many of the country’s population as possible to act as citizen scientists collecting data. It is based on a technology known as eDNA, which can be used to search for the presence of animal species by detecting small traces of DNA remaining, for example, from hair and skin cells.
The technology currently works best in water, so the GAWS test sites will initially be alongside rivers and streams. (In 2020, human health services in Australia and elsewhere began applying the same kind of technology to track the spread of COVID by looking for tell-tale genetic markers of the virus in wastewater.)
Each time the animals swim or drink from a stream, tiny traces of DNA can be detected sloughing off their bodies for up to two weeks afterward. It can be identified by comparing it with a library of known genetic markers of different species. Even if the DNA falls into the terrestrial environment, it can be detected in the nearby water body when it is carried there by runoff after rain.
Although Australia is the most arid continent on Earth, most of our animals need to find water somewhere to drink – no matter how small or hidden the source.
What is possible with this technology for wildlife is exceptional! “
says Odonata CEO Sam Marwood.
“It will give us a snapshot in time so that we can turn the information into distribution models for both wild and feral species that will be better than we had before. To be able to see where the threatened wildlife is, means we can plan where our reserves are going and where we can Supporting Wildlife Corridors.” The information can also be used to determine if there are important wildlife species on nearby properties so that owners can manage their land accordingly.
The GAWS project grew out of previous work done using eDNA jointly with University of Melbourne environmental geneticist Dr. Andrew Weeks.
The first scientific papers on eDNA from water were written around 2008; Andrew has been researching the technology on a large scale since 2012. His team first applied it to a Melbourne Water project to locate platypus in state watersheds. The platypus is now considered an endangered species, and being aquatic, it provided an ideal opportunity to apply the technology.
Andrew’s team found that using eDNA was more sensitive and cost-effective than using other methods, such as trapping, to locate the Victorian platypus. “We were able to show that by taking just two water samples from a site, we can detect more than 95 percent of the time if a platypus is present,” Andrew explains. “To do this with traditional platypus surveys, we had to do 6-10 surveys, and each would last an entire night.
“So you can see how cost-effectiveness and technology sensitivity fit into that.”
From platypus to any animal that approaches the water, eDNA use has grown in Victoria and Odonata has seen the possibilities of wildlife monitoring. In 2021, a pilot project to apply the technology was carried out across the state. With the help of an army of citizen scientists, at a cost of $900,000, samples were taken from 2,000 sites. The results are due to become available in late 2022, but the project has gone so smoothly that it is being scaled up nationally in the form of GAWS, which is due to start soon, and is running in every state and territory across the country.
Andrew estimates that the type of data expected to be produced typically takes at least 15 years to collect using traditional methods, at a cost that could exceed $150 million.
For more information and to find out how you can participate in the survey or donate to the project, go to thegreataustralianwildlifesearch.org