Using fly DNA to track native species

Curtin University researchers have collected iDNA (invertebrate-derived DNA) from carrion flies to track the movements of native species across WA’s wheatbelt, with hope to improve future conservation efforts in the region.

Published in the Journal Conservation Biology, the research found that native animals, such as the echidna, numbat, woylie and chuditch, were mainly located in conservation reserves, rather than across the wider wheatbelt landscape.

This is in contrast with predatory invasive species such as foxes and feral cats, which were found across all areas.

Echidna, Boyagin Nature Reserve | Photo credit: Quolling Around

Senior researcher and co-author Associate Professor Bill Bateman from Curtin’s School of Molecular and Life Sciences said native mammal populations were declining at alarming rates and there was an urgent need to monitor and protect their wellbeing.

“Tracking wildlife through alternative techniques, such as camera trapping and audio recording, can be difficult, costly and take several weeks to gather data. Using iDNA (invertebrate-derived DNA) from carrion flies which commonly interact with animals, their faeces, or carcasses can enable much faster gathering of data.

“We estimated in our study that individual flies were only travelling just over half a kilometre. Using this information coupled with the iDNA technique, we were able to identify that native animals were only using conservation reserves.

“This means that to ensure they have the best possible chance of survival, we need more of these reserves across the region, ideally with corridors between.”

Lead researcher Dr Kristen Fernandes, who completed the work as part of her PhD at Curtin University, said conservation reserves were introduced to help prevent mammal population declines.

“These reserves are particularly important as the wheatbelt landscape has been severely fragmented, with more than 93 per cent of the natural vegetation replaced with exotic grasses and cereal crops,” she said.

“Using iDNA techniques can give us insight on which animals are using the reserves, if the surrounding areas are suitable to the species, and which predators are in the area.

“Further research is needed to fully assess the impact of this technique across larger landscapes and with a wider range of animals.”

The study was also co-authored by researchers from Curtin’s School of Molecular and Life Sciences.

The full paper is titled, “Carrion fly iDNA metabarcoding to monitor invasive and native mammals in a fragmented terrestrial ecosystem,” and can be found online here.