I am gathering kangaroo feces – and our study has the potential to preserve numerous marsupial species | Angela Russell
I was expecting a difficult task in persuading my husband to support my decision to go back to school after he had retired. However, I was pleasantly surprised by his enthusiasm for the idea.
He kindly recommended a few captivating subjects: sea turtles, dugongs, and coral reefs. If it required a watercraft in a tropical setting, he fully supported me.
If you plan on devoting three and a half years to studying one specific subject, it should truly captivate your interest. In my case, my fascination with gut bacteria and its impact on health prevailed. Despite my husband’s disapproval, I decided to fully immerse myself in the topic of marsupial feces, leading him to jokingly refer to me as “Dr Poo.”
Thankfully, I am not the only one who shares a fascination with feces. Wildlife caregivers understand the importance of monitoring an animal’s waste as a crucial aspect of ensuring its well-being.
When I started searching for individuals to gather feces from wild and captive marsupials such as eastern grey kangaroos, swamp wallabies, red-necked wallabies, bare-nosed wombats, and ringtail and brushtail possums across regions ranging from Queensland to Tasmania, the majority of those who responded were wildlife caretakers.
“The group of microorganisms present in the fecal matter of marsupials”
The Fecal Flora of Marsupials
A team of approximately 20 individuals was recruited to collect fresh pellets from their captive or wild animals each season, equipped with forceps and zip-lock bags and braving all weather conditions. The pellets were then documented, properly labeled, and stored in freezers before being shipped to the university for genetic testing in specialized temperature-controlled packaging.
We conducted this study to determine the typical composition of the gut microbiome in various animals across different regions and seasons. This allows us to identify any discrepancies in captive animals, which can be remedied by altering their diet or introducing supplements.
In order to enhance communication with these amazing volunteers, I created a Facebook group called the Marsupial Microbiome Poop Troop, which consists of diverse and vibrant individuals.
Kate has a unique ability to obtain fresh wombat feces by closely following wild wombats in her nearby reserve until they produce it. It is not recommended to replicate this at home. Kate possesses impressive skills in communicating with wombats.
Darryl was deeply affected when a storm caused his roof to blow off and left him without electricity for a fortnight. However, it wasn’t the damage to his house or loss of belongings that upset him the most, but rather the fact that his collection of possum droppings thawed and had to be discarded, forcing him to start anew.
Julie is the top collector and has won the prize. She collects large amounts of poo from various species. The supervisor of the university’s storage department, who receives the poo, is not always happy with Julie’s collection. He must have a strong sense of smell because he regularly emails me about the arrival of more “animal excrement” or “smelly packages” that need to be collected immediately.
Saving orphaned joeys
Although it may seem like an enjoyable activity, the research we conduct with the gathered feces has significant potential to protect the lives of numerous marsupials. Our main emphasis is on juvenile joeys who have been left without a mother.
When joeys are brought to wildlife shelters, they are often in a state of distress, with injuries and malnutrition, due to their mothers being hit by cars, attacked by dogs, or passing away from other causes. This is because marsupials are born very underdeveloped and typically spend a significant amount of time in their mother’s pouch. As a result, when they are left without a mother, they need to be taken care of for an extended period of time.
The gut microbiome of these young joeys, often called “pinky” joeys, is comparable in growth to that of preterm human infants. During this critical period, it is still being established through the mother’s milk, the conditions in the pouch, and cleaning and grooming.
The abrupt absence of parental nurturing, combined with the strain of being confined and a drastic shift in food intake, can have a significant negative impact on the gut microbiome. This can make the young animal vulnerable to illnesses, diarrhea, and dehydration, ultimately leading to death.
In the event that this disproportion could be remedied, the likelihood of successfully raising orphaned marsupials would increase. This would result in better overall health for the animals, leading to a higher number of successful reintroductions into their natural habitat.
While the animals involved in this study are considered “common”, the same principles may be applied to endangered species held in captive breeding programs once it has been shown to work on the more prolific species.
Without the assistance of the Poop Troop volunteers, it would have been unfeasible to gather such a vast and consistent sample. The remaining feces will be preserved in a frozen state and accessible to future researchers, thanks to the dedication and persistence of these extraordinary individuals. Their efforts have truly made a valuable contribution to the study of marsupial microbiomes, which will continue to benefit wildlife in the years to come.
Angela Russell, a PhD candidate at La Trobe University, first published this article on the Conversation.