eDNA and the tjakuṟa

Meet the new postdoctoral fellow driving the Molecules in the Sand: eDNA and the tjakuṟa project.

What do the Australian Great Desert Skink (tjakuṟa), African cheetahs, lions, black rhinos, invasive khapra beetles, fallow deer and prawns in Africa and Australia have in common?

Answer: the amazing Doctor David Thuo!

Photo Credit: Dr David Thuo

Thuo, as he prefers to be called, is the new Postdoctoral Fellow at the Australian National Wildlife Collection, CSIRO in Canberra, driving the project ‘Molecules in the sand: eDNA, and the biology of the tjakuṟa, the Great Desert Skink’.

This project will address the challenge of retrieving DNA shed by animals (“eDNA”) in terrestrial environments to study their biology. In this case, Australia’s iconic but notoriously difficult to study Great Desert Skink or tjakuṟa.

tjakuṟa or Great Desert Skink (Liopholis kintorei). Image credit: CSIRO

Results from the skink’s eDNA study will support management of this culturally significant and threatened species by Parks Australia and Indigenous traditional owners. The project is a collaboration between the Anangu people, CSIRO, Parks Australia, Australian National University and National Parks Conservation Trust.

Prior to starting this project, Thuo was a Research Fellow and Tutor at the University of Canberra’s Centre for Conservation Ecology and Genomics with a PhD in Wildlife Genetics from the University of Canberra. In his PhD, he developed and applied novel molecular tools to study the population health and diet of free ranging African cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus). The results of this work helped demonstrate to local communities that cheetahs were not as significant a predator of livestock as they had thought.

Thuo has extensive fieldwork experience, mainly gained while working at the Kenya Wildlife Trust in Maasai Mara, Kenya and, in addition to his research on cheetahs, has studied the conservation genetics and ecology of African lions, Black rhinos, invasive khapra beetles, fallow deer and prawns in Africa and Australia. Thuo’s research interests focus on the development, improvement and application of genetic tools to monitor and conserve biodiversity.

The current project, to apply eDNA research concepts to the tjakuṟa, should help answer some critical questions about the biology of this important species including; how many individuals occupy a burrow, how many burrows has one individual occupied, how does occupancy change over time, what is the age, sex and relatedness of individuals, how long do tjakuṟa live, how far do individuals move across the landscape and when, what can be learned of the tjakuṟa’s diet from scats and which predators visit burrows of tjakuṟa.

It may also prove to be a technique which can be applied to other threatened species who survive in Australia’s arid zones.

Now the new year is underway, Thuo is busy planning the next stages of the research project, including meeting the Indigenous traditional owners and the Parks Australia staff who managed this species within Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.


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