I thought convincing my husband of the merits of me returning to study just as he retired would be a tough sell. So his enthusiasm for the idea surprised me.
He helpfully suggested several interesting topics: sea turtles, dugongs and coral reefs. If it involved a boat in a warm climate, he was 100% behind me.
But if you’re going to devote three and a half years to studying a single topic, it has to really excite you, and my interest in gut bacteria and health won out. To my husband’s dismay, I chose to immerse myself in the subject of marsupial poo – and in retaliation he started calling me Dr Poo.
Fortunately, I am not alone in my fecal fetish. As any wildlife carer can tell you, monitoring what comes out of an animal is an essential part of keeping an eye on its health.
So when I looked for volunteers to collect poo from wild and captive marsupials – specifically eastern gray kangaroos, swamp wallabies, red-necked wallabies, bare-nosed wombats, and ring-tailed and brush-tailed possums – across an area from Queensland to Tasmania, it was mainly gamekeepers who answered the call.
The Marsupial Microbiome Poop Troop
I enlisted a core group of about 20 people who dutifully went out each season in all weathers, armed with their tongs and ziplock bags, to pick fresh grains from their caretakers or wild animals that passed through. Then they filled out the paperwork, carefully labeled the bags and stored them in freezers until they could be mailed to the university in special temperature-controlled packaging for genetic analysis.
We did this to establish a baseline of what the normal wild gut microbiome looks like in different animals in different areas at different times of the year. This allows us to realize if there is an imbalance in animals in captivity that can be addressed and prevented by changing diet or introducing supplements.
To aid my communication with these wonderful volunteers, I started a Facebook group page that became known as the Marsupial Microbiome Poop Troop. And it has some colorful members.
There’s Kate, who gets the freshest wombat poo by stalking wild wombats in her local sanctuary until they produce the goods. Don’t try this at home. Kate has serious wombat whispering skills.
There’s Darryl, who was devastated when the roof blew off his house in a storm and he was without power for two weeks. Not for his ruined house or loss of possessions, but because his collection of possum poo thawed and he had to throw it away and start over.
Julie wins the award for most prolific collector. Her poop packs are by far the largest, and cover quite a few species. The supervisor of the university’s stores, who receives the poop packages, is not always a fan of Julie’s efforts. He must have highly attuned olfactory senses as he regularly sends me emails announcing the arrival of more “animal excrement” or “smelly packages” for immediate collection.
Save orphan joeys
While this all sounds like fun and games, the research we’re doing with the collected poo has serious potential to save many marsupial lives. We focus especially on young orphan joeys.
Whether their mothers have been hit by cars, attacked by dogs or died from other causes, the joeys arrive at wildlife refuges stressed, often injured and generally cold and hungry. Because marsupials are born so undeveloped – and usually spend a long time in their mother’s pouch – they require a long period of care when orphaned.
The gut microbiome of these “pinky” joeys is equivalent in development to that of premature human infants. It continues to be established at this critical time, via the mother’s milk, environmental conditions in the pouch, cleaning and grooming.
The sudden loss of parental care, together with the stress of being in captivity and a complete change of diet, can do a lot of damage to the gut microbiota. This can leave the joey open to infections, diarrhea and dehydration, which can be fatal.
If it were possible to correct this imbalance, the success rate of raising orphaned marsupials would increase. Their improved general health should mean greater numbers of animals being successfully returned to the wild.
While the animals involved in this study are considered “common”, the same principles can be applied to endangered species kept in captive breeding programs once it has been shown to work on the more productive species.
Without the help of the Poop Troop volunteers, it would have been impossible to sample so widely and consistently. The remaining poo will be kept frozen and made available to future researchers, so through their dedication and persistence these amazing people have made a real contribution to marsupial microbiome research that will continue to help wildlife in the future.
This article was originally published in the Conversation. Angela Russell is a graduate researcher PhD candidate at La Trobe University